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.


The Female Orgasm  

Why don’t we understand how the female orgasm works? After years of scientific research, the male body is understood but when it comes to how women work, we are a long way behind. Why is there this gap in knowledge? It appears research has been hindered by the assumption that the female body works in the same way as the male body and that for women, arousal is all in the mind. There’s also a general attitude that studying sexual pleasure isn’t important and that female orgasms aren’t important to study as they serve no purpose for reproduction. Researchers are slowly correcting these assumptions and making surprising discoveries. We’ll take you behind the scenes to two orgasm labs to bring you the latest research on how orgasms work for women. We’ll also hear from Callista, who struggled with excruciating pain during sex for many years but was told the problem was all in her mind. Her journey to diagnosis shows how little is known, even amongst gynaecologists and doctors, about female sexual pleasure. Presenter: Aasmah Mir Producer: Phoebe Keane (Image: Woman's hand grasping a bed sheet. Credit: Shutterstock)

Why do cities make us rude?  

Why when we are surrounded by people do we tend to shun them? Why do we refuse to make eye contact or say hello? Why do tempers flare on busy city streets? More and more of the world’s population are moving to cities. As they swell in size our behaviour changes and not always for the better. It’s a familiar scene, a busy metro carriage with people pushing and shoving but never saying hello or even making eye contact. Why do cities make us act this way? To find out we speak to Social Psychologist Dr Elle Boag about what’s happening inside our heads. We ask Marten Sims of the organisation Happy City Lab if buildings can make us rude? We perform the ‘Lost Tourist’ test to find out just how rude London is. Olivier Giraud tells us why Parisians never give up their seat to pregnant women on the metro. Manhattan manners expert, Thomas Farley defends the city and explains the reason we often have to act the way we do. Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Jordan Dunbar (Photo: Man and woman arguing on street. Credit: DW Labs Incorporated/Shutterstock)

The Family Tree  

Mike Williams asks why so many people are obsessed with discovering their family origins and also learns new things about his own ancestors along the way. Genealogy is a growing phenomenon driven by the digitization of old paper records, websites offering to DNA test your saliva for $100 and TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are which explore celebrities family histories. But what does spending hours, weeks and – in some cases – years trying to discover names or dates that might reveal the identity of someone related to us hundreds of years ago say about us? And what are we really looking for? Mike talks to Else Churchill at the Society of Genealogists in London, Nathan Lents, professor of molecular biology at John Jay College in New York and Catherine Nash, Professor of Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London. Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Ben Carter (Photo: Paper cut of family symbol under tree on old book. Credit: jannoon028/Shutterstock)


Imagine your home is so filled with stuff that moving around it is almost impossible. Every bit of space is piled high with books, pictures, DVDs and newspapers so you can’t even get into some rooms – not even the bathroom or kitchen. There’s nowhere to sit and no room for visitors. That’s what life is like for those with a hoarding disorder and their close family and friends. It’s a recognised mental illness, an uncontrollable desire to acquire and keep an excessive number of objects and it’s thought to affect between 2-6% of the UK and US population. So why do some people hoard? And why is it so difficult for them to get rid of some of the many thousands of items that clutter their home? Mike Williams meets Stephen whose apartment is so swamped with possessions that his young children can’t stay. He hears how the extreme hoarding habits of one American father led his teenage daughter to make a suicide bid. And, on a positive note, there are lessons for compulsive hoarders on how to resist the urge to acquire more things. Contributors: Bill Barry and Stephen, Tenants, Liverpool Housing Trust Randy Frost, Professor of Psychology at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts Heather Mattuozzo, Founder, Clouds End Fabio Gygi, Anthropology lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University Kimberly Rae Miller, author, ‘Coming Clean’, a memoir Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Sally Abrahams (Photo: Lots of clutter in a front room. Credit: BBC Copyright - taken in contributor's house by presenter with contributor's permission)

Unconscious Bias  

Are you sexist, racist or ageist? Even if you think you’re open-minded, the chances are, you’ll be judging people and situations without even realising. These hidden biases – which are different from conscious prejudice – lurk within our minds. Science clearly shows that almost all of us have at least one of these tendencies - an implicit preference for one race over another, for men over women, for young over old or vice versa. Our unconscious biases are influenced by our background, our personal experiences and the culture in which we live. And they can affect the way we behave, the decisions we make: whether it’s who we hire, who we promote or even – in the case of jurors – who we believe is guilty or not guilty. Mike Williams learns about an online assessment test that measures unconscious bias, explores the extent to which we can we limit these hidden biases, once we’re aware of them. And hears how one orchestra, in particular, has a solution to the problem – by asking prospective players to remove their shoes. Contributors: Mahzarin Banaji, Professor of Psychology, Havard University; Dr Pete Jones, Psychologist; Nick Logie, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Yassmin Abdel-Magied, mechanical engineer and founder, Mumtaza speakers bureau; Kayo Anosike, Music Director/Kayla Benjamin, Training Consultant; Margenett Moore-Roberts, Yahoo’s Global Head, Inclusive Diversity; Patrick Brayer, criminal defence attorney, St Louis, Missouri. Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Sally Abrahams (Photo: Man holding a baby whilst ironing and woman fixing car. Credit: Shutterstock - Volkovslava & Wavebreakmedia)

Eye Witness Identification  

Can you believe your own eyes? Can you trust your own memory? Why is it that so many social scientists and so many in the police and the judiciary are so very concerned about eye-witness testimony. Mike Williams talks to an attorney at the Innocence Project in New York, a retired judge, a professor of psychology and a memory expert in an attempt to find out why we try – and often fail – to accurately recall a face or an event.

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)

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