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The Why Factor


Why do we do the things we do? Mike Williams searches for the extraordinary and hidden histories behind everyday objects and actions to inform us about the way we live in the 21st century. Broadcast and podcast every Friday from September 2012.

Why do we do the things we do? Mike Williams searches for the extraordinary and hidden histories behind everyday objects and actions to inform us about the way we live in the 21st century. Broadcast and podcast every Friday from September 2012.
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Why do we do the things we do? Mike Williams searches for the extraordinary and hidden histories behind everyday objects and actions to inform us about the way we live in the 21st century. Broadcast and podcast every Friday from September 2012.




Why learn to be happy?

What does happiness mean to you? Friends, family, the rush of a crowd or the joy of solitude? Happiness is a fundamental human desire, yet we often struggle to achieve it. Understanding what does and does not make us happy is a growing field of scientific study. In this edition of the Why Factor, Sandra Kanthal asks if we can really teach people how to be happy. Laurie Santos – Professor of Psychology, Yale University Bruce Hood – Professor of Developmental Psychology, University of Bristol...


Why do funerals matter?

Christopher Gunness explores why funerals matter so profoundly to us, as individuals and societies. He talks to people who have lost loved ones in Ghana, Pakistan and the UK about the challenges they have faced. He discovers how burial and cremation have become popular in different countries at different times, visits a green burial place and looks at the growing world of online memorials. Presenter: Christopher Gunness Producer: Bob Howard (Photo: Ghana, Accra Funeral Service. Credit: Getty...


Why do we blend?

Blending ingredients to produce something new is a distinctively human urge, and one of our most creative acts. We blend all sorts of products, such as tea, champagne and perfume. Did you know that blended whiskies combine over 30 single malts? In this week’s Why Factor, Barry Smith asks - why we blend. And why some blends work whilst others don’t. Presenter: Barry Smith Producer: David Edmonds Editor: Richard Knight


Why does nature calm anxiety?

As the world grows more urban, humanity moves further away from nature. Could this be the reason anxiety has become the most diagnosed mental illness in the west? The idea of mindfulness is becoming more popular as the mainstream grows more aware of how panicked we all are. How are we tackling this issue? Jordan Dunbar dives into a niche of researchers and therapists who are learning about and treating the negative symptoms of urban life with a dose of nature. Lea Kendall, Therapist and...


Why do we care so much about games?

The sports teams we support say something about who we are. Our identities are bound up with the men and women who play for our side – and we experience their success and failure as if they were our own. But, if supporting your team is so important, how can there be so many people who think these contests are of little consequence? Sandra Kanthal explores why we care so deeply about the outcome of a game. Michael Sandel, professor of Government Theory - Harvard University Dr Martha Newson,...


Why do some people become hermits?

If the idea of being all alone, in silence, for long periods of time fills you with dread, it might be hard to understand why anyone would choose to be a hermit. But throughout history and across all cultures, there have been people who choose to leave behind the life and people they know to live in isolation and silence. This week, Shabnam Grewal asks: why do people become hermits? Guests: Sara Maitland - writer, feminist and Catholic hermit. Ansuman Biswas - artist and part-time hermit...


Why should we work together?

Open plan offices, hot-desking, group brainstorming sessions: collaboration seems to be king in the modern workplace. Recent studies have found that we are spending up to 80% of our working days either in meetings or dealing with requests from our colleagues. But is working together really the best way? Is the idea of collaboration something we’re fetishising at the cost of productivity and creativity, and have we lost sight of the benefits of working alone? Nastaran Tavakoli-Far shares her...



Schadenfreude is a German word that means “harm-joy”. It is the pleasure we feel from someone else’s misfortune, and it can come in many shades. It is the laughter we can’t stifle when someone unexpectedly falls over, or the triumphant pleasure we feel when a rival is defeated. We can also feel it when something bad happens to someone we genuinely like. Edwina Pitman examines why, even when we’re happy and successful, we can’t help but enjoy others’ bad luck. Contributors: Esther Walker -...


Why aren’t more women in computer science?

The history of computing is filled with the accomplishments of women. But in the West, the number of women taking computer science degrees has fallen sharply from its peak in the 1980s. In the developing world, however, the trend is going in the other direction, because learning to code offers economic opportunities not available to women before. Women are still outnumbered in computer science classrooms, but there are more of them. In this edition of The Why Factor on the BBC World Service,...


Why do we care where we come from?

Most of us feel some need to know a roadmap of our past, our connections with a family tree which took root before we were born. We look for stories to tell about where we come from and seek answers in the lives of our ancestors, even in the DNA they pass on to us. In this edition of the Why Factor, Viv Jones asks why we have such a fundamental need to discover the stories of our heritage, and what they tell us about ourselves. Contributors: Sandy Banks, journalist Caitriona Palmer, author...


Why do people risk death in pursuit of adventure?

What makes some people want to base jump off a building, or climb a cliff with no ropes? A thrill-seeking personality may be necessary, but is it enough to court the sort of danger that could kill? In this week's Why Factor, we explore why some people risk death in pursuit of adventure. CONTRIBUTORS Hazel Findlay, Professional climber. Erik Monasterio, consultant in Forensic Psychiatry, clinical director of the regional forensic service in Canterbury New Zealand and senior clinical lecturer...


Why is it so hard to get people to pay tax?

Our attitude to taxation is determined by a wide range of factors: whether we think our neighbours are tax dodgers, how much control we have over how funds are spent and even our gender, age and religious beliefs. Nastaran Tavakoli-Far hears tales of tax avoidance by the world’s super-rich and finds out how governments around the world are using simple ‘nudge’ techniques to get people to feel positive about paying up. Guests: Carla Gericke, President Emeritus of the Free State Project Brooke...


Confidence: How it can help us

How confidence can motivate, get us off the couch, make us healthier, enterprising, decisive and help us live up to our potential We also learn how doctors, entrepreneurs and whole economies can benefit from the right kind of confidence and the ways in which we can tell the good from the bad. In this edition of the Why Factor, Michael Blastland asks: why do we admire confidence? Contributors: Ed O’Brien - Associate Professor of Behaviour Science, University of Chicago Booth School of...


Confidence: Why it misleads us

From doctors to politicians to your boss, people often ask us to put our confidence in them. We’re often urged to build more confidence in ourselves. But one of the most consistent findings in psychology is that there is very little overlap between confidence and competence; how good people think they are, and how good they really are. In this edition of the Why Factor, Michael Blastland asks: why do admire confidence? Contributors Ed O’Brien - Associate Professor of Behaviour Science,...


Why do we find it hard to cut our losses?

At some point in our lives, we’re all likely to make an investment, in time or money or effort, which goes wrong. But, when we know we’re in a hole, why do we find it so hard to stop digging? Realising when we should cut our losses is a decision making skill that’s important in all areas of our lives. In this Why Factor Sandra Kanthal examines why we should all learn how to avoid the 'sunk cost' fallacy. Guests: Spencer Christian - author, You Bet Your Life Wandi Bruine de Bruin - professor...


Emotional labour

Many jobs require workers to manage their emotional expressions with others. Flight attendants are expected to smile and be friendly even in stressful situations, carers are expected to show empathy and warmth, whereas bouncers and prison guards might need to be stern or aggressive. This management of emotions as part of a job is called ‘emotional labour’. It is something many people perform on top of the physical and mental labour involved in their work. Psychologists have shown that faking...


Why is climate change so politicised?

People on the left are more likely to accept climate change than those on the right in the USA, Australia and much of Western Europe. But it’s a question that starts with little more than a thermometer, a measurement of the temperature at the earth’s surface. Why does a science question divide people along party lines? Was it the oil industry, fuelling doubt about the science? Or something deep in our psychology, that causes us to push the science aside in favour of belonging to a tribe, a...


Separating the art from the artist

Why can’t we judge art at face value? How does the identity, behaviour and cultural context of the artist play a part in how we approach their artwork? Edwina Pitman explores why we can’t seem to separate the art from the artist. Guests: John Myatt, artist Paul Bloom, Professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University Michelle Hartney, artist Lionel Shriver, novelist Ananya Mishra, PhD researcher in English, University of Cambridge Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programs,...



Popularly known through the1950 Disney film of the same name, Cinderella has become a childhood classic all over the world. But different versions of her story can be traced all the way from Asia to Africa and beyond. These variants provide a snapshot of the history and cultures from which they emerge, providing clues to the tale’s longevity. In this episode Sandra Kanthal asks: Why is Cinderella such a popular story to tell. Guests: Gessica Martini – PhD Student, Durham University Juwen...


Why do stories matter?

Telling stories is one of the ways we connect to one and other. Stories teach us empathy and allow us to feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. They evolve to show us what our society considers acceptable - and what will not be forgiven. Sandra Kanthal explores why stories matter. Guests: David JP Philips – Communications Expert John Yorke - Author: Into The Woods Mirta Galesic - Professor in Human Social Dynamics, Santa Fe Institute Jamie Tehrani, Associate Professor of...