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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
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Why are people criticizing James Kim?

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 9th 2006

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.

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.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Presently, he is an Oakland Psychologist (Lic#PSY25695) in private practice offering evidence-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and addressing a range of life problems. Contact Dr. Dombeck by calling 510-900-5123, send Dr. Dombeck email or visit Dr. Dombeck's practice website for more information.

Reader Comments
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This is so true. - - Mar 30th 2008

"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."

This realization is very insightful and so true. I agree completely.

They're calling him an idiot because he was - because he was an idiot - Jun 20th 2007
by this time you've read the other blogs.  The best one I read pointed out that, wait, he's not a hero.  Why is the press calling him a hero?  That I think is the biggest story.  If you want to analyze the mental health of that, that'd be a story.  Otherwise, it is just people who know after they get to be 18 and drive for a year on their own, you don't go down tertiary roads or 4th or 5th level roads at night in the snow with two small children.  Having done that, you don't leave the road if you leave the car.  People searching are going to be using the roads, I'd think.  No one is setting out cross-country in winter in the mountains in Oregon to find you, they're using the roads.  I agree his judgement got cloudy, but the first 2 days ya gotta hustle for yourself.  Why not?  They were so passive it makes you sick.  No food, no gas, didn't turn around, stayed in car for a week without walking out on the road.  Pathetic.  Probably didn't have winter clothes.  It is also pathetic the searchers did not find them.  A family was stranded just the year before in southern Oregon mountains.  That's the first place I thought of. Actually, the heroes were the two phone company techs who triangulated the pings from the cell phone towers and the pilot, who knew (common sense once again) that that area was where people get lost.  The whole thing is kind of disgusting.  The searchers should have found them, if a person on a computer can google the roads and find the one they took that looked like a direct way to the coast, gotta really wonder about the official and hired search help.  The volunteers found them, the phone techs and pilot.  So, hurray for them!  It is of course sad, especially to all involved, but it was dumb, dumb dumb dumb dumb.  What a dumb bunny.  I like the blog that said "We all make those little decisions that, well, we're lost but we'll just go a little farther."  Of course we all do that.  But at a certain point, like after passing warning signs, your common sense kicks in and says, we gotta go back, spend the night off the I-5 corridor, and get some directions from the locals.  Every parent has to make those decisions when they get to doing some dumb stuff.  People have to buck up and take responsibility for what they are doing.  People are too soft nowadays.  For example (this is long), let's take the mental health "theory" that psychotics cannot tell the difference between right and wrong and don't feel remorse.  Bull hockey.  Off course they know right from wrong--they just get their kicks from doing wrong, and they KNOW in the current namby-pamby mental health climate, they won't be held accountable, no matter how despicably they act.  So, a double whammy--I can act like I don't know right from wrong and do whatever I want, and no one can hold me responsible because I'm psychotic.  How about, let's kill one or two publicly a year, and see how long it takes for them to know the difference between right and wrong?  Let's go back to public hangings. 

Why are you critizing James Kim? - Margie - Dec 15th 2006
Yes, you may not have driven at night with your kids. Yes, you may not have driven the same route the Kims did. They made mistakes and James Kim paid for them with his life. But wait, he's human and humans make mistakes. Give the man a break. Let him rest in peace and let his family move on with the memory of their husband, father, child, friend as a man devoted - to the end - to his family. You shouldn't be quick to criticize someone for the mistakes they have made. You never know what you would have done in the circumstances. It's easy to sit at your computer and hypothesize what YOU would or would not do. Just pray that you will never have to face the reality that the Kims faced during their ordeal.

The Biggest Mistake We Can All Learn From - Paula - Dec 12th 2006
I think the biggest mistake the Kims made was driving at night on their road trip - coupled with driving at night in winter-like weather. As a mom with two small children around the same ages as the Kims, I cannot even imagine a road trip that involved driving at night with the kids. They should be in bed then. Driving on road trips at night, IMO, is risky. Visibility is poor and it is easy to hit wildlife. There is a large possibility if they had been driving their same intended route during the light of day, they would have never missed their exit in the first place. Once they missed their exit, that's when the bad judgement continued: - taking a county road through the mountains in cold weather - driving a Saab on a snowy road - driving a long way up what was obviously a remote road. Many have blamed this tragedy on poor signage, bad maps and the gate that was unlocked by the vandal. While these did not improve the Kim's ordeal, they were only after-effects of some bad judgement calls. This sad tragedy should be a lesson to everyone: If you MUST drive at night in cold weather, be prepared with the proper vehicle and equipment. And don't bring small kids. How this woman survived in the car with an infant and toddler is totally beyond me. My kids can't even stand being cooped up in the house for a day - let alone a car for 10 days. It was a stroke of luck that Mrs. Kim was still nursing her baby, as it provided nourishment for both kids.

Tragedy of the backwoods - Rick - Dec 12th 2006
James Kim (with or without input from his equally intelligent wife) made a series of decisions that lead to his death. They drove into a treacherous area in winter, during a storm, lacking supplies or sufficient gas and other matters. They missed their turn (a major all-weather road to the coast off the InterState) and, apparently, decided to take the next crossing. That was the start of a horrible chain of events. I have driven over that route a few times, and know the backwoods. I "respect" it as it is dangerious if you are ill prepared. Although knowledgeable of the reigon, I have been lost on occasion and temporarily stuck (usually flat tires). However, I have backup plans, a radio (that works in area), etc. The Kims found the turnoff to the Bear Mtn Rd, but right at the start is a sign saying "Road may be closed 18 miles ahead." That would give you pause. Two more warning signs are there. This is a paved route, winding and a slow drive. At one point, it is reported that James had to put his head out the window to see the road due to heavy falling snow. That should be a major signal---go back. One story says they drove until they hit snow drifts on the road, then went back to the side road (a logging road). In either case, why leave a paved road to a gravel road? They ended up 20 miles off the paved road. I do not understand that set of decisions. You can turn around (I have done this more than once, and on this paved road when hitting snow drifts). However, he was unfamiliar with the back country or determined to forge ahead. We may never know. Tons of "blame" is now happening. Decisions were made, and one person died. He was someone of national stature, so it seems many want to point out faults or miscues. It is risky to downright dangerous to travel in remote areas without maps, 4 wheel drive, communication devices (CB radio at a minimum), extra supplies, and the like. However, I have travelled back country roads for decades and never need to be rescued. I have been lost at times, but figured it out. I am not saying I am better than anyoine else. I have been close to serious trouble elsewhere (stuck in sand in outback of Mexico, but 6 hrs of digging finally did it). I think a lot of the anger or know-it-all attitude is coming from the techno field. This is all fine, but once you get out in America's remote areas, most of these devices do not work. Hone up on your survival skills without gadgets. The last time I drove in the woods on a vacation, some of the items I took including: .22 rifle (survival), 357 magnum pistol (for people), ax, knife, stove, fuel, water (5 gal), much food, case of beer, and other stuff. I could easily survive for two weeks. I also know what berries to eat and not. I can hunt and fish. At the same time, and totally convinced, I am in more danger just driving to the woods than being out in the woods, incuding driving logging roads. I have lost more friends due to traffic accidents or flying off paved roads (4 people) than beng in the back country (no losses). I have faced more danger in traffic in big cities than anything during hundreds of outings in the woods. We differ based on our experience, training and abilities. Do not blame nature, country roads, signs or anything else. it is low risk out there most of the time. Some exceptions. Rick

Staying isn't always the right option? - - Dec 12th 2006
The article seems to suggest (falsely) that striking out for help MIGHT have been the right choice. This is patently false. While understandable, it is a simple statistical reality that if anyone reasonably responsible knows that you are missing (they don't even need to know where, just enough to be concerned enough to let the authorities know) and you aren't in more or less eye sight of civilization, moving is a mistake. The fact that I might make the same mistake in Kim's situation doesn't make it any less of a mistake. You can call his decision stupid without insisting that you, yourself, would not also make a stupid decision.

because leaving the car wasn't the only bad decision - - Dec 12th 2006
Hindsight can teach us much. I think the reason for some of the criticism is that leaving the car wasn't the first "bad" decision made by the Kims in the course of their misadventure. Several news accounts recount several junctures in which a different decision would probably have created a better outcome. Late in the evening, they decide on an alternate route to their destination after missing a turn. The alternate route is over mountainous terrain, with which they are unfamiliar, and it is winter--storms can be expected. While on the alternate route, they take a wrong turn (through a gate that had been padlocked, but had the lock broken at some point), then drive past signs warning travelers about the suggested seasonal use of the road. They decide turn around and drive out in the morning. By morning, however, a snowstorm has them stuck where they are. And at some point, after the snow was no longer an issue, they didn't think they had enough gas to drive out. I haven't read where Kati has given an interview, so it is unclear whether or not they walked around where they were, trying to get to higher ground to get cell phone coverage, trying to scope out what was around them (apparently, a closed-for-the-winter lodge was within a mile or two). All the news reports make it sound like they just waited. They burn the tires on their car, effectively stranding them even more severely, as then they couldn't drive anywhere, even if they decided to try. If they could get a fire hot enough to burn tires, they could have scavenged flammable material from the forest. Even with snow cover, there is stuff out there that will burn. James decides to walk for help, this after missing turns and taking wrong turns while reading a highway map. Yes, he must have felt desperate, as he most assuredly was going to get lost. He begins his trek out, only to leave the roadway, which is where he is most visible, and most likely to meet up with someone. Trying to follow a creek to safety, in country he didn't know, without a topo map--as I said, he had to have been desperate. So I don't think all of the discussion and criticism is because he left the car after being stranded for several days. The criticism is somewhat warranted given that James and Kati put themselves and their children at risk with one poor decision after another; unfortunately, it cannot change the tragic outcome.

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