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Why Ask Why?

on November 11th, 2011 by Fabrice

Asking WhyExperts in effective communication will often tell you that asking someone a “Why?” question will automatically put them in a defense mode. We are not talking here about material causes and effects or technical problems; rather we are talking about reasons for choices and behaviors.

Why, then, when asked a “Why?” question do we feel accused? Why does this question trigger an attempt at justification, rather than exploring potential causes? Our mind instinctively begins to search the quickest solution to avoid pain! The truth is we don’t always have a reason for everything we do. In a now famous experiment, Michael Gazzaniga did an experiment with split-brain patients (i.e. people whose left and right brain hemispheres did not communicate). Through a special optical device, one picture was shown exclusively to the left hemisphere and the other exclusively to the right. The right hemisphere (without language capabilities) was presented with a picture of a snow scene), and the left hemisphere (comprising the language centers) was presented with a picture of a chicken claw. The patient was then asked to choose from an array of pictures related to the pictures just presented. The right hand (controlled by the left brain) pointed to a chicken picture (consistent with the chicken claw), and the left hand (controlled by the right brain) pointed to a shovel picture (consistent with the snow scene). So far so good. However, when asked why he chose those items, the patient (answering with his left hemisphere) made up this story: “Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”

In The Mind’s Past, Gazzaniga (1998) writes about the idea of a “left-hemisphere interpreter that constructs theories to assimilate perceived information into a comprehensible whole.” But in this process, unknown areas get filled with bogus information.

“[The interpreter] is really trying to keep our personal story together. To do that, we have to learn to lie to ourselves.” (p. 25)

This is only one example of how we can never be unequivocally certain of our own motivations. Therefore, we don’t really have a good answer to “Why?” questions. No wonder they tend to provoke defensiveness, rationalization and spurious reasoning!

If some part of this rationalization was an evolutionary advantage, it often works against us. Trying to put words to what motivates our choices can also derail such choices. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment conducted at the University of Virginia in the early 1990’s. Dr. Timothy Wilson asked a group of undergraduate students to rank 5 kinds of strawberry jams that had been evaluated a few years earlier by a Consumer Reports panel of experts (except that the Consumer Reports evaluation covered 45 different brands, and Wilson selected only the 1st, 11th, 24th, 32nd and 44th best tasting jams for his subjects). Not too surprisingly, the college students’ preferences closely mirrored those of the experts. Wilson found a statistical correlation between the two of .55, which is rather impressive. Lehrer writes “When it comes to judging jam, we are all natural experts.”

But in a second phase of the experiment, Wilson asked a second group of students to explain why they preferred one brand over another. As they tasted the jams, the students filled out questionnaires where they analyzed their preferences in writing rather than just following their instinctive choice. Now, the results were completely different: The college students now preferred the worst-tasting jam (based on the Consumer Reports evaluation). The correlation plumeted to .11, indicating virtually no relationship with the experts’ ranking.

No wonder we feel defensive when ask to justify ourselves with a “Why?” question. That question is a trap, because there isn’t a true answer to it, and our mind immediately shifts into a speculative mode that is disconnected from our true feelings. The truth is that we do what we do just because. When it is not time to do something, there is nothing you can do to make it happen, and when its time comes, there is nothing you can do to stop it. There is no need to question it. Think about what it’s like when you really have to go to the bathroom; you don’t agonize over whether it is right or not—you just go because it’s timely. All our other actions are actually just the same.

In the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, the Buddha cautioned us about metaphysical speculation when it distracts us away from seeking the Truth. The parable presents a man who has been struck by a poisoned arrow, and instead of having the doctor remove it immediately, he insists on knowing who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. Of course, if that man were to wait until all these questions have been answered, he would die.

Outside of the technical or scientific realms, beware of the “Why?” question. Be mindful and inquire into whether your beliefs are true or not.


  1. The Mind’s Past, by Michael S. Gazzaniga. University of California Press (1998).
  2. How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. Mariner Books (2009).

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