Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011.
Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995
A tragedy occurred during this last week. One tragedy out of many, undoubtedly, but a tragedy nevertheless. Kati and James Kim of San Francisco and their two young children were returning home from a Thanksgiving trip that took them into Oregon. They made a wrong turn somehow in the Grant’s Pass area and shortly thereafter found that their car was stuck in snow on an untraveled road (that apparently was closed for the winter). They were unprepared for this event (as so many of us would be), but made the best of the situation. You would think that they would have been found fairly quickly, but this was not the case. A week or so passed with them stuck in the snow, trying to stay alive. On or around the seventh day, without any knowledge of the manhunt that was out looking for them, James struck out from the car in an attempt to find help. Kati and the children were found shortly thereafter, but it took several more days for James’ body to be located. He had apparently died of exposure after wading through icy water trying to locate help.
The whole reason that this event became an object of national coverage and not simply a local tragedy was because James Kim had been an employee of CNet, and as such was well known to the online population. I thus became aware of this tragedy not through the newspapers, but online through discussions at Reddit and Metafilter. And I noticed that people discussing the event were divided between sympathy, and criticism of James’ action of leaving the car to seek out help. "You NEVER leave the shelter of the car" was the idea behind much of the criticism. Many people simply could not believe that the decision to leave the car (which as it turned out was a bad one) could have been a rational decision. They excused attributed the seeming irrationality of the decision to leave the car to mental deterioration brought on by lack of food and water, and exposure to the cold. Some other voices were a little more forgiving and simply reflected on the tragedy and senselessness of this loved man dying such a painful and needless death.
I’m to understand that in general that staying with the car (when you are stranded in the snow) is the right thing to do. However, as columnist C.W. Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out in his article, "Ultimate dad knew meaning of devotion: why futile journey of a stranger had nation mesmerized", sometimes this conventional wisdom can backfire. Apparently, one DeWitt Finley was similarly stranded in the same area in the Winter of 1995, did not leave his car to search for help, starved to death, and was not found until Spring. There are no absolute right and wrong rules when it comes to survival.
It is not that our decision making capabilities count for nothing. Whether we make a good decision or a bad one will in part determine whether or not we survive a dangerous situation. The problem is that sometimes it doesn’t matter if we make the best decision or not because events are overwhelming. Even more often the best decision is not clear until after the events have unfolded; until hindsight has granted us 20/20 vision. In the heat of the moment, you make the best decisions that you can based on the information you have, and you hope that it is enough. In James’ case, it wasn’t enough.
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I think the urge to criticize James’ decision to leave the car in hopes that he could locate help comes out of a powerful sense or belief that most of us are motivated to protect that the world is a predictable and rational place, and that if we only do the right things, make the right decisions, that we will be protected; that our lives will continue in a good manner. We want to believe that if we are good, in other words, that good things will happen to us. But this is not how the world works, in actuality. In actuality, bad things do happen to good people. Every day. All the time.
Psychology contains a concept known as the Fundamental Attribution Error which can help to explain the criticism of Kim’s actions. Wikipedia gives a good enough definition, which I quote here:
"… The Fundamental Attribution Error … is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior. In other words, people tend to have a default assumption that what a person does is based more on what "kind" of person he or she is, rather than the social and environmental forces at work on that person. This default assumption leads to people sometimes making erroneous explanations for behavior. This general bias to over-emphasizing dispositional explanations for behavior at the expense of situational explanations is much less likely to occur when people evaluate their own behavior."
In other words, we blame Kim for making a bad decision by putting down his decision making abilities (and inflating our own), while simultaneously discounting the reality of the situation that Kim was in (which was overwhelmingly powerful and lethal). If we were judging our own decision making in the same situation, we would tend to be far more forgiving to ourselves, because we would fully count the situational variables that were so stacked against us.
The Fundamental Attribution Error helps us to predict the shape of the response to Kim’s tragedy, but not to understand why that response is there in the first place. I think the answer to that second question is simple. Kim died. We don’t want to believe we will die (or would have died). We disassociate ourselves from Kim. We wouldn’t have made the mistake that Kim made, so therefore we would not have died. All of which is very logical, but also misses the point that Kim did not necessarily make a mistake. If he had been found first, and that resulted in the rescue of his family, we would all be cheering him today as a hero and celebrating his initiative. The fact that his decision to leave appears to be a mistake is only conclusive in hindsight. We know how the story comes out, so we know which decisions were not the best ones he could have made. But while you are in the process of making those decisions you don’t have access to the outcome information, and so you just do the best you can. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.
So – for the remaining two minutes of fame this story has left in it, I hope that people will gain a little insight, cut the guy some slack and just focus on the tragedy – the death – that has occurred and the hole that exists now in the Kim family. This could have happened to anyone, and many of us would not have handled it half so well, I don’t think.
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