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.



Regret – why do we feel this negative emotion? Is it right to live with it, or should we simply get over our mistakes of the past? Mike Williams speaks to a palliative care nurse who recorded the regrets of the dying, and the man with 50,000 regrets, all entrusted to him by anonymous strangers who have confessed the biggest regrets of their lives on his website. (Photo: Statue of woman with head in hand. Credit: Cheryl E. Davis/Shutterstock)

Carrying Guns  

In 1994, most Americans said they owned their gun for sport or hunting. Fast forward twenty years and now most people say they have their gun for self protection. So what changed in this time; did crime increase? Actually, the data shows that crime has declined significantly over time. So what are people really scared of? And is it rational to respond in this way? We visit a gun licensing class in Texas, USA to hear what prompted people to sign up. We also hear from Angela Stroud, sociologist and author of the book Good Guys With Guns, who argues that it’s not crime people are scared of, but something much less tangible. We also hear from a psychologist in a country you may not associate with guns….neutral Switzerland. They have the third highest gun ownership rate in the world, after the USA and Yemen. So why do so many people have guns there? Is it really just as simple as protecting ourselves from harm? Presenter: Aasmah Mir Producer: Phoebe Keane (Photo: Maria Mathis practices shooting her handgun on her ranch in Texas, USA. )


What drives some people to take the law into their own hands? Mike Williams hears stories from Europe, Africa and the US. Stories about the men – and it is usually men – who take it upon themselves to patrol the streets or seek out paedophiles online. And, he explores what happens when vigilante groups mutate into monsters. Whether motivated by revenge, frustration or a desire to do good, does mob justice ever work? With contributions from Scott and Callum, co-founders, Dark Justice; Laurie James, forensic criminologist, based in Botswana; Curtis Sliwa, founder of Guardian Angels; Kate Meagher, associate professor, Department of International Development, London School of Economics; Jim Gamble, former chief executive, Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre; Abubakar Bukar Kagu, solicitor and advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria Photo: Close up of Guardian Angels' jacket with other men sitting in background, Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Why Do We Make Lists?  

Lists of things to do and things to buy. Presents we want for Christmas, or things we desire in a lover. Lists help us organise our thoughts and bring order to a confusing world. But what do they reveal about us? (Photo: An original Madonna handwriten 1990 'to do' diary. Credit: Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images)


Could you forgive the person who killed your child or who raped or tortured you? Some crimes, some events are so awful, so cruel, it’s impossible to imagine ever being able to say to the wrongdoer, ‘I forgive you’. Mike Williams hears the stories of those who have experienced unimaginable pain and suffering at the hands of others. And discovers what it feels like to turn anger and desire for revenge against the perpetrators into compassion and understanding for them. What does the act of forgiveness mean to the offender? The programme explores how learning to forgive can make us happier and healthier. But how in some cases, the atrocity is so enormous that forgiveness is a step too far. Contributors: Madeleine Black, Counsellor based in Glasgow, Scotland Robert Enright, Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Wisconsin, USA Martin Palmer, Theologian and Historian of religion Sarah Heatley, mother of Nina and Jack Kemal Pervanic, survivor, Omarska concentration camp during the Bosnian war Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Sally Abrahams (Photo: Family standing on cliff edge with hills in background. Credit: BBC Copyright (with permission from contributor)

Why do we get Road Rage?  

Everyday millions of us across the world get into our cars and drive. For many of us this will be an unpleasant experience because of the behavior of other drivers or even because of our own bad behavior. Even the calmest person can become a raging demon while driving, screaming and swearing at the other road users. What is it about driving that makes some people so angry? What can we do to stop it? We speak with professional racing driver Nathalie McGloin about keeping control Dr Mark Sullman tells us what’s happening in our heads when we get into the driver seat Comedian Rhod Gilbert gives us a passionate description of what gives him road rage Monica Chadha describes driving in Delhi Glenn Scherer gives us a lesson in ‘car yoga’ to try and keep the rage away. Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Jordan Dunbar (Photo: Man shouting at woman sitting in car. Credit: Shutterstock/


The desire for vengeance – to harm those who’ve harmed you - is part of human nature. Whether it’s getting your own back on a cheating partner or settling a score with a childhood bully, many of us have considered retribution against the person who’s done us wrong. Yet often we decide not to act on that instinct. So what motivates someone to take revenge and why did this kind of aggressive behaviour evolve? Mike Williams talks to a perpetrator who found it sweet and hears the tragic story of a victim of impossibly cruel revenge. Contributors: “Annie”, who took revenge Michael McCullough, Professor of Psychology, Miami University Dr David Chester, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University Sarah Heatley, mother of Nina and Jack Philippe Sands QC, International Human Rights lawyer and author, East West Street Professor Jack Levin, Co-Director, Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts Presenter: Mike Williams Producer: Sally Abrahams (Photo: White Voodoo doll with red pins on cork background. Credit: Shutterstock/Scott Rothstein)

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

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