A Simple Twist of Fate?

On November 21, 2010, about 5:44PM, a Beech 19A, N6064N, piloted by Chuck Chambers ran out of fuel. During the pilot’s subsequent forced landing, the airplane descended into an estimated 3-feet-deep water in Newport Beach, California, nosed over, and was substantially damaged. Chambers and his two passengers were killed. They were all returning from watching the Score Baja 1000 off-road race in Baja, California.

Five years earlier, on November 19, 2005, at 2:03PM, a Cessna T210N, N546BC, crashed into the Pacific Ocean and sank about 3 miles south of Dana Point, California. The pilot and three passengers on board, who were returning from the Score Baja 1000 off-race in Baja were all killed. Among the dead was Jason Baldwin, who was a driver in the race. The accident investigators believe the pilot, Dan Neuman, 51-years old, suffered a heart attack in flight.

The two aircraft crashes were separated by exactly five years and occurred 16 miles from each other, but were connected by the same event, the Score Baja 1000.

Jason Baldwin was no stranger to accidents. In 1998, he collided head-on with a motorcyclist who was considering entering the Score Baja 500 off-road event during the pre-race warm up. The motorcyclist was killed.

In 1999, he lost control of his truck two miles into another Baja off-road race and crashed into a crowd, killing an onlooker and injuring himself and several others.

Immediately after the news of Jason Baldwin’s death, his family released the following announcement:

The family has found comfort knowing that Jason spent the last day of his life doing what he loved, racing through the Baja desert. Jason had a strong faith and an unmatched zest for life, living it to the fullest every day.

Chuck Chambers has the following quote on the home page of his website:

Plan your life as if you are going to live forever. Live your life as if you are going to die tomorrow.

Did anybody do any investigation to determine if the two people killed by Baldwin also lived life to the fullest? Did anybody investigate whether Chuck Chambers’ passengers, who also perished when he ran out of fuel, lived their lives as if they were going to die tomorrow?

For over 50 years, social psychologists have been trying to figure out the human gift for rationalizing irrational behavior. Why would a human being say it is okay to die unexpectedly, as long as the victim lived life to the fullest? Is it really OK to die before your time?

This self-delusion, the result of what’s called cognitive dissonance, has been demonstrated over and over by researchers who have come up with increasingly elaborate explanations for it. Psychologists have suggested we hone our skills of rationalization in order to impress others, reaffirm our “moral integrity” and protect our “self-concept” and feeling of “global self-worth.”

Cognitive dissonance, is a term coined by the social psychologist Leon Festinger. In 1956 one of his students, Jack Brehm, brought some items into the lab and asked people to rate the desirability of things like an electric sandwich press, a desk lamp, a stopwatch and a transistor radio. Then they were given a choice between two items they considered equally attractive, and told they could take one home. After making a choice, they were asked to rate all the items again. Suddenly they had a new perspective. If they had chosen the electric sandwich press over the radio, they raised its rating and downgraded the radio. They convinced themselves they had made by far the right choice.

In general, people deal with cognitive dissonance — the clashing of conflicting thoughts — by eliminating one of the thoughts. The notion that the radio is desirable conflicts with the knowledge that you just passed it up, so you banish the notion. The cognitive dissonance is gone; you are smug once again.

Of course, when you see others engaging in this sort of rationalization, it can look silly or pathological, as if they have a desperate need to justify themselves or are cynically telling lies they couldn’t possibly believe themselves.

This concept becomes manifest with people who make poor decisions, and then defend those poor decisions against all logic and reason. For instance, many Americans have been hooked-in by the shameless promotions of Mexico as a cheaper and better place to live than the United States. Once down there, and the reality of Mexico sinks in, some wisely move back to the US and chalk it up to experience. Others remain in Mexico and become pathological liars.

One can find many of the pathological liars on the BajaNomads message board. They live in a third-world shithole, with corrupt police, corrupt politicians and incompetence at every level of government. The power goes off almost daily, the water is undrinkable, even when it is available. Any interaction with the government takes weeks and months for the simplest of requests. Crime, especially petty crime, is rampant. No self-respecting Mexican will ever leave his home unoccupied for more than a few hours, knowing full well that it will be cleaned out in his absence.

Yet these very same people who have invested their money and their reputation down there will insist that Mexico is not only a paradise, but is far superior to the United States. They will do this while reading the daily news headlines that the Mexican government lacks sovereignty over large swaths of its own territory and that Mexico is descending into anarchy. They will invent reasons why they made sound decisions.

So, in case the message has not been clear, it really is NOT OK to die young, leaving a widow and children just because you lived life to the fullest or had a zest for life. It really is NOT OK to kill people with your truck and then do it again the next year because you happen to love racing. It is really not OK to grossly mischaracterize Mexico so you can remove your inner conflicts about making a bad decision. It is all just rationalization.