The Why Factor

The Why Factor

United Kingdom

Why do we do the things we do? Mike Williams searches for the extraordinary and hidden histories behind everyday objects and actions.


Organ Donation  

It’s become quite a common thing but when you think of it, it’s remarkable that we can take a part of one human (dead or alive) and insert it into another to cure them. Last year across the planet, an estimated 119,000 people received transplants but many more are still waiting. In the United States alone more than 120,000 are on the waiting list for an organ transplant. For many people, that life-saving operation will have to wait until someone else dies. Mike Williams talks to a surgeon in the United States, a doctor in Israel whose direct action led to an improvement in donation rates, a daughter who gave a kidney to her father and a man who altruistically donated a kidney 20 years after a family tragedy. Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Ben Carter (Photo: Man and daughter smilling. Credit: Nicholas Evans - personal photo)

Farewell Letters  

Why do we write farewell letters? Whether it's messages from the living to the dying or from the dead to the living, how can we find the words to say goodbye? A letter from a daughter to her dying father, a last letter from a soldier on the eve of battle, messages of love from a dying mother to her young daughter and a suicide note from a father to his teenage son. Mike Williams explores the comfort and pain of goodbye letters. Contributors: Susan Geer, Last Goodbye Letters; Joe Williams, The Enemy Within; Brendan McDonnell, Herman’s Hands; Laura Colclough; Julie Stokes, Founder, Winston’s Wish; Anthony Richards, Imperial War Museum. Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Sally Abrahams (IMAGE: Woman and child walking along woodland path. Credit: worradirek/Shutterstock) Credit for clip used: The Mummy Diaries (2007), Ricochet/Channel 4 TV


Why do we feel so many different and intense emotions when someone close to us dies? Whether it’s yearning, sadness, anger or even shame, Mike Williams explores why each person’s grief is unique. The pain of losing a loved one initially seems so unbearable, yet most bereaved people do eventually find a way to adjust to their changed life. So what happens when we grieve and why does grief sometimes get complicated? Mike talks to Bill Burnett, who’s learning to live without his wife, Betty. She died in 2010 after 43 years’ marriage, yet Bill still talks to her photo and asks her advice; and we hear from Rhonda O’Neill who lost her husband in a plane crash and then her young son to kidney disease two years later. She describes feeling tormented by the belief she could have done something more to save her son’s life. We also hear from eminent UK psychiatrist, Dr Colin Murray Parkes who describes what happened to one of his patients who buried his grief; and from Dr Katherine Shear, Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University and Director of the Center for Complicated Grief. Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Sally Abrahams (IMAGE: Woman hugging man. Credit: Vibe Images/Shutterstock)

Assisted Death  

Is it ever right to take a life? Mike Williams explores the ethical dilemmas of assisting death. In a few countries, terminally-ill people — suffering pain and distress — are allowed to get help from friends, family and physicians to bring their lives to an end. In many countries, it’s a crime. Helping someone to kill themselves is illegal in the UK but there are attempts to get the law revised. The rules are most liberal in Belgium where, recently, a 17 year old boy became the first minor to be granted help with dying. And, in the United States, California has become the fifth state to approve what they’ve called “physician assisted death”. Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Ben Carter & Kara Digby (IMAGE: Woman touching elderly man's hand. Credit: Arman Zhenikeyev/Shutterstock)

Why do Crazes Take Off?  

Pokemon Go has been the runaway success of the summer but why is it that some games, hobbies and activities become crazes while others do not? Is there a secret formula? Johanna Basford, the illustrator behind the current adult colouring book craze and Cheong Choon Ng, who invented the Rainbow Loom, explain how they managed to get their ideas off the ground and loved by millions. We hear from psychologist Ben Michaelis that insecure people are more likely to engage with crazes than people who have a lot of self-confidence. Matthew Alt, co-founder of Alt Japan, a company which produces English versions of Japanese games, explains why so many childhood crazes of the last 30 years including Transformers, Power Rangers, Tamagotchi and Pokemon started in Japan. Presenter Aasmah Mir also takes a trip down memory lane, trying out hula-hooping at a class in London after enthusiastically abandoning the fad 30 years earlier. Is she any better now? Hula-Hoop teacher and performer Anna Byrne explains why the craze is making a comeback. But not all fads are harmless fun. Sometimes playground crazes can go wrong and have devastating consequences. Sabrina Lippell talks openly about the tragic death of her twelve-year-old son William Stanesby after he took part in the so-called ‘choking game’ that encourages participants to restrict their airways. (Photo: A hand holds a phone showing a Pokémon character on screen. Credit:JoeyPhoto/Shutterstock)

Comic Book Superheroes  

Mike Williams asks why we are so fascinated with the superheroes which populate our cinema screens and comic-books.These modern, mythical, magical titans emerged from 20th century comic books but they’re descended from ancient heroes… Hercules and Odysseus, the Nordic Thor, the Babylonian Gilgamesh. Today they help keep film companies afloat by inspiring billion dollar blockbusters. Mike talks to Jim Higgins is a writer and editor of comics, Nina Nazionale from the New York Historical Society, Steven Walsh, a bookseller at Gosh Comics, Jason Ditmer, a professor of political geography at University College London and Dr Casey Brienza, a sociologist at City University in London. (IMAGE - Superman, Robin and Batman standing in a booth. Credit - Hulton Archive / Handout, Getty Images)

Why do we find some voices irritating?  

On the last episode of The Why Factor Mike Williams explored the human voice in all of its unique power and beauty; this week we investigate its unique ability to irritate and annoy. We all have our personal bugbears when it comes to irritating voices: nasal, monotone, high-pitched or certain types of accent; but why do certain types of voice wind us up so much? And does that irritation reveal more about the speaker or about ourselves? Neuro-biologist Professor Sophie Scott and linguists Rob Drummond and Rob Pensalfini help us to decipher whether there is anything intrinsically annoying about certain sounds or whether it is all about social conditioning: our own biases and prejudices. Are irritating voices the same the world over? Why does the Australian accent get picked on? And what is vocal fry? Finally, what if it is your voice that everyone hates? Mike talks to Laura Ashby, a contestant on the US game show Jeopardy! Whose voice led to a social media meltdown and to her receiving death threats. Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Rose de Larrabeiti (IMAGE: B/W image of boy with fingers in his ears and girl leaning on his shoulder. Credit: Dennis Oulds/Getty Images) Credits for clips used: American Pie (1999) Universal Pictures. Director: Paul Weitz Comedian Adam Hills, Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala 2006 Jeopardy! Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. Fresh Air presented by Terry Gross from WHYY/NPR This American Life presented by Ira Glass from WBEZ/NPR The Vocal Fry Guys courtesy of Ann Heppermann UP (2009) Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios. Director: Pete Docter

The Voice  

We each have a unique voice, shaped by our biology, history, class and education. It is a powerful tool and we are often judged by the very first words out of our mouths. Mike Williams discovers what makes one voice trustworthy and another not. We hear from a voice coach about how we can adapt and deceive with our voices and a vocalist demonstrates the power of the voice as an instrument. We also hear from an American teenager who has been voiceless since birth but whose personalised computerised voice has enabled her to find her own. Audio clip of Elaine Mitchener, taken from Focus (2012) by Sam Belinfante, courtesy of The Wellcome Collection. (Photo: Woman singing into microphone. Credit: Shutterstock)

Why not celebrate introvert personalities?  

Introverts. People who are often labelled as shy, a term coined following the work on personality types by German psychologist, Carl Jung, in 1921. But introversion is much misunderstood. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone whereas extroverts are the opposite and crave crowds. Emerging research on the biochemistry of the brain indicates that the neurotransmitter dopamine – the chemical released that provides motivation to seek rewards, is much more active for extroverts than for introverts. According to Phd and introvert researcher, Lisa Kaenzig, introverts are much less valued today than they used to be. In the past, some of the world’s most renowned thinkers, religious leaders, philosophers and writers were held in the highest esteem – many of them were working alone and were at their most creative in solitary study. However, she is part of a growing movement which is challenging a seeming bias in favour of the extrovert – for the person who talks first in meetings and makes off-the-cuff remarks and who may shout the loudest to get their ideas heard. The growth of the open plan office, group thinking and collaborative learning are all enemies to the introvert, but in recommendations by Dr Peter Aloka – a Kenyan psychologist who has been studying introvert teenage mothers in Bondo, the answers lie in teaming introverts up with extroverts and calling upon introverts to present group findings and allowing extra think time in response to questions. Where do you lie on the introvert/extrovert scale or are you in the middle – an ambivert? If you are an introvert, you’re in very good company; Barack Obama, Rosa Parks, JK Rowling and many more eminent and thoughtful people are introverts. Presented by Anu Anand Produced by Priscilla Ng’ethe and Nina Robinson (IMAGE: Words in white chalk describing personality types on a blackboard. Credit - marekuliasz, c/o Shutterstock)

Why do pet videos go viral?  

The Why Factor is about our pets on the internet. Those viral videos of our cats stalking us or the dogs saying I love you. Why have cats become celebrities and why do we love to watch and follow them on social media? Mike Williams meets the cat at the top of the viral video tree; the one and only Grumpy Cat with twelve million followers, her owners and business managers are just trying to keep up with all her fans. Assistant Professor Jessica Gall Myrick from Indiana University, conducted an online survey of some 7000 cat video watchers and found that people felt happier watching them and were less likely to feel anxious or sad. With all that happiness around, the creator of NyanCat – an animated cat flying through space with a rainbow trail and catchy tune to match, has a mind-boggling 133 million views last time Chris Torres checked. He tells The Why Factor why he thinks it has been such a viral sensation. We also talk to Jason Eppink, curator of a recent exhibition at the Museum of Moving Image in New York on ‘How Cats Took Over The Internet’. Then there is a serious side to all this cat, dog, chicken and goat watching online. Anh Xiao Mina – a writer and researcher has been looking at the growth of ‘cute cat digital activism’ – the theory that pet viral videos are teaching us important lessons about what we can say and do online and could, in the future, be used to promote new social movements. Presented by Mike Williams Produced by Nina Robinson (IMAGE:Grumpy Cat at the BBC, Nina Robinson - BBC Copyright)

Fear of Animals  

Why do we still fear animals that pose no serious threat to us and how can the effect of that irrational fear be so overpowering? As Mike Williams discovers in this week’s Why Factor, the answers lie deep in our evolutionary past and deep inside our brains. Mike faces his own animal fear at London Zoo, where we also meet people overcoming their fear of spiders. Arachnophobia is one of the most common animal phobias and American Psychologist Joshua New’s research suggests humans are better at identifying and locating spiders than any other perceived threat. Could our fear of spiders be a leftover from our evolutionary ancestors? Neuroscientist Dr Dean Burnett reveals what happens in our brains when we’re frightened by animals, and this is not always by the traditional spider or snake. We hear from a woman in Greece who has a rather surprising animal phobia… Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Rose de Larrabeiti Film clip: 1984 (1984) Umbrella-Rosenblum Films Production. Director: Michael Radford (Image: Young boy holding spider on back of his hand. Credit : Zoological Society of London)

Fear vs Fact  

Mike Williams asks if we now live in a post-factual age — where messages of fear dominate and the truth goes unspoken or unheard? He investigates the “Backfire Effect” which means that entrenched views can become more entrenched – when confronted by contradictory facts. Politicians are often accused of distorting the truth – with Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump the latest. (Image - Group of people standing with one holding a newspaper with the headline "Earth Doomed". Credit - Everett Collection via Shutterstock)


Freedom, control, uncertainty and danger. Why do we love driving? Mike Williams asks if we would miss driving, as auto-piloted cars are tested in cities around the world. He talks to Dr Lisa Dorn, psychologist and associate professor of driver behaviour, Dr Zia Wadud an associate professor in transport studies, technology reporter Brian Fung, racing team owner Eddie Jordan and top gear presenter Sabine Schmitz. (IMAGE: White driverless car on road. Credit NOAH BERGER/AFP/Getty Images)


Anybody who watched the European Championships of football this summer in France would have seen shocking scenes of violence between fans. The vast majority, if not all, were men. Men also commit more than 90% of murders across the world and are more likely to join a gang. In this episode of the Why Factor, Caroline Bayley asks: Why are men more violent than women? She speaks to ex-football hooligan Cass Pennant about his experiences and motivation when violence became his way of life. Former British Army officer Jane Middleton explains the differences between men and women on the battlefield when she served in Afghanistan. Caroline also hears views from Sweden about how equal violence between men women in relationships is. Producer: Keith Moore (IMAGE: Group of football fans fighting in street - Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Why Are We Getting Smarter  

For many decades now we’ve been getting smarter. All across the planet average IQ results have been rising… by about 3 points every ten years. It’s called the Flynn Effect and it’s changing our societies. So what is it? What causes it? And what could be the consequences if — as seems possible — it goes into reverse. (Image : Woman and man standing back to back with think bubbles. Copyright - Racorn/Shutterstock)


Free, digital news is threatening traditional newspapers around the world, so why do they survive and what is their future? Mike Williams speaks to legendary newspaper editor Sir Harry Evans and journalist in exile Qaabata Boru who fought to set up an independent newspaper in a Kenyan refugee camp. Mike also hears from Melody Martinsen who owns and edits The Choteau Acantha, a tiny newspaper in rural Montana where not even the premature birth of her son stopped publication. And at the British Library’s newspaper archive, Mike learns how, as chronicles of ordinary people’s lives, newspapers can throw up some surprise stories missed by the history books. (Image: Early edition of the Daily Mirror spread on table. Credit: Image courtesy of the British Library)


Why are we attracted to some people and to not others? Mike Williams explores the factors that lie behind our feelings of attraction. He speaks to the authors Christy and Clare Campbell. Christy fell in love at first sight, but it took Clare six months to feel that strong sense of attraction. After 40 years of marriage they are still attracted to each other. Beauty, facial symmetry, personality and values all play a role in our attraction to others. Evolution biologist Dr Anna Machin from Oxford University explains the science behind attraction. Dr Machin explains how chemicals released in our brains gives us the confidence to approach someone who we are attracted to and how the smell and taste of a prospective partner can tell us a lot of their genes and whether they will be a compatible mate. (Photo: A couple gazing at each other. Credit: Shutterstock)


What is loneliness and why do we feel it? Why do some people feel lonely when surrounded by people and others never feel lonely at all. In this edition of the Why Factor Mike Williams finds out why feeling lonely can help us to survive. Feelings of loneliness don’t only come from the position we can sometimes find ourselves in. Studies of twins in Holland have shown that loneliness has a hereditary element. And surprisingly loneliness can also be contagious. Mike speaks to the Chinese artist Li Tianbing about how growing up under China’s one child policy shaped his art and to a Swedish entrepreneur who invited eleven people to come and live with her to combat her loneliness. (Image: Woman alone on a bridge/Credit: Shutterstock)

Safe Space  

The ideal university experience is expected to train the minds of students by exposing them to new ideas and challenging their assumptions. Why then, in the English speaking west at least, are some students rebelling against this principle by insisting there are some ideas which are so abhorrent they should not be heard? To them a university should be a safe space. In this edition of the Why Factor, Mike Williams tries to discover where the balance lies between freedom of speech and protection from offence and asks what exactly is a safe space? Producer: Sandra Kanthal Image: Students sharing space on campus (Credit: Rawpixel/ Shutterstock)

Copying Art  

Mike Williams looks at artistic copies. Why do people try to create old masters and modern art, brush stroke by brush stroke? And why do people buy them? He talks to art copier David Henty, fine art expert and gallery owner Philip Mould, Paul Dong a Beijing based art auctioneer, Colette Loll founder and director of the Washington-based Art Fraud Insights and art copy customer Patricia Burns from Canada. (Image: A copy of Pablo Picasso's 'The Weeping Woman' painted by David Henty / Photo supplied by the artist D.Henty)

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