“Why do you say that?” “How important is value to you when choosing which brand of paint to purchase?” These kinds of questions get asked all the time. The answers they elicit are not just useless, they are misleading. They steer us away from the truth and instead provide us with false information that confirms accepted myths.
Questions like “what is important?” and “why do you say that?” get asked because they are easy. They are easy to write, easy to explain to others, and easy to report back. They are seductively simple. But they are poison.
These kinds of questions substitute illusion for truth. And to make matters worse, the picture the answers paint appears plausible. The answers “make sense.” That’s what makes them so dangerous.
Why is asking ‘why’ wrong?
Asking ‘why?’ is problematic because it sits at the overlap of three inconvenient truths. Firstly, we are blind to our motivations. Secondly, our conscious mind creates plausible reasons for our often-unconscious choices. Thirdly, when we provide those reasons, we are deeply influenced by social conventions, and use our answers to get along in the world.
In other words, we don’t know why we do what we do, but we are good at making up the answers that we think will satisfy the person we are answering to. The worst part is that we are oblivious to our own ignorance and the inadequacy of our attempts at explanation, because this is the way the world goes ‘round.
When we ask people what was important, we get perfectly socially acceptable answers. What we don’t get is an insight into what people really do, and how they actually decide. We get misleading information because people are ever ready to give plausible answers to our questions—even if they don’t know the answer.
Daniel Gilbert, in his highly readable and often hilarious book Stumbling on Happiness, reports, “research suggests that people are typically unaware of the reasons they are doing what they are doing, but when asked for a reason they readily supply one.
For example, when volunteers watch a computer screen on which words appear for just a few milliseconds, they are unaware of seeing the words and are unable to guess what words they saw. When the word hostile is flashed, volunteers judge others negatively. When the word elderly is flashed, volunteers walk slowly. When the word stupid is flashed, volunteers perform poorly on tests. When these volunteers are later asked to explain why they judged, walked or scored the way they did, two things happen: First, they don’t know, and second, they do not say, ‘I don’t know.’
Instead, their brain quickly considers the facts of which they are aware (‘I walked slowly’) and draws the same kinds of plausible but mistaken inferences about themselves that an observer would probably draw about them (‘I am tired’).”
People are reason-giving machines. That has to do with how we think, and how we get along with others.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on behavioral economics. Behavioral economics is concerned primarily with how we process information and make decisions. He suggests the brain’s operations can be categorized into two systems:
System 1 which is fast, intuitive and emotional, while System 2 is slower, deliberative and logical.
Kahneman suggests that when we think about who we are and the choices we make, we like to believe we are primarily using System 2, “the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices and decides what to think about and what to do.”
But hundreds of experiments have confirmed that System 1 thinking is the primary driver of our choices. We tend to make snap judgments and spur-of-the-moment choices, and then rationalize them to ourselves.
We believe we are using System 2 thinking because System 1 thinking “effortlessly originates impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2.” The notion of System 1 and System 2 thinking is, of course, a metaphor.
British behavioral scientist Nick Chater challenges that metaphor in his provocative new book The Mind Is Flat: The Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain. He sets forth a compelling theory that we have just one way of thinking: we make it up in the moment, based on a sparse combination of perception, context, and memory. He argues, using an impressive review of neuroscience, behavioral psychology, artificial intelligence and perception, that we have no unconscious thoughts—we have only the illusion of depth and solidity.
“Our brains are spectacular engines of improvisation that can, in the moment, generate a color, an object, a memory, a belief or a preference, spin a story or reel off a justification,” writes Chater. The brain “is such a compelling storyteller that we are fooled into thinking that it is not inventing our thoughts ‘in the moment’ at all, but fishing them from some deep inner sea of pre-formed colours, objects, memories, beliefs or preferences, of which our conscious thoughts are merely the shimmering surface. But our mental depths are confabulation—a fiction created in the moment by our own brain.”
This, he suggests, explains why so many studies indicate instability in our choices and beliefs, often depending on contextual effects. Writing about how people respond differently to the ways risks are framed he says, “at one moment people shy away from risk; yet at the next moment they embrace it. This makes no sense if we make our choices by referring to some inner oracle, but it makes perfect sense if we are improvising: conjuring up reasons, in the moment, to justify one choice or another.”
So, while we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, we are largely driven by emotional reactions we are not aware of. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran summed this up nicely: “Our mental life is governed mainly by a cauldron of emotions, motives and desires which we are barely conscious of, and what we call our conscious life is usually an elaborate post-hoc rationalization of things we really do for other reasons.”
So here we have two of our inconvenient truths: We are blind to our motivations, and our conscious mind creates plausible reasons for our often-unconscious choices.
The third truth is that when we provide those reasons we are deeply influenced by social conventions and use our answers to get along in the world.
Life is a lot easier when people are not in conflict. As a result, we have developed a series of habits that tend to reinforce interpersonal harmony. The phenomenon of social mimicry, for example, is well understood—even if it is a little embarrassing when we catch ourselves doing it. People tend to subtly adopt the facial expressions, postures, and ways of speaking of those they are interacting with, and research shows that doing so helps people get along better.
We do a similar kind of thing when we give reasons. We are hugely influenced by who we are “conversing” with—even if the communication is written. Sociologist Charles Tilly in his book Why? delves into “what happens when people give reasons…and why.” He found that people “often settle for reasons that are superficial, contradictory, dishonest, or—at least from an observer’s viewpoint—farfetched. Whatever else they are doing when they give reasons, people are clearly negotiating their social lives.”
In the world of survey research, when we ask “why” we get a lot of convenient shorthand answers that will be socially acceptable. “The acceptability of such reasons does not depend on their truth,” says Tilly, “much less on their explanatory value, but on their appropriateness to the social situation.”
Given that we typically don’t know why we do what we do, and we are quick to make up reasons that we think are socially acceptable, it is easy to see how asking “why” can provide us with information that is not only unhelpful, it is harmful.
Instead of shining a penetrating light on a problem, asking why casts a distorted shadow that masquerades as the answer.