Why We Need To Know Why

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I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:  we are, all of us, meaning-seeking creatures.  We seek not only to define the meaning of our lives by adopting, whether consciously or unconsciously, an over-arching purpose, but also to understand the reason for almost everything that happens in the course of each day.  Why did our boss change our work schedule?  Why does our spouse care so much about the clothes we wear?  Why is traffic snarled for miles ahead of us?  Why did that man in the news kidnap and rape that girl?

Why is what drives not only everything we do, but also our emotional reactions to everything that happens to us.  Imagine how quickly your frustration at encountering that traffic jam on your way home from work would turn into horror if, as you passed the accident that caused it, you caught a glimpse of a mangled corpse lying beside a totaled car.  Or how easily the irritation you’d feel at being told you have to work an extra shift at work each week for the next two months might turn into a willingness to contribute when you learn the reason is that one of your colleagues was just diagnosed with cancer and needs to spend that time getting chemotherapy.

We’re simply far more likely to accept a change if we understand the reason for it.  Interestingly, our acceptance seems to hinge less on how much we like the reason and more on how much sense the reason makes to us.  Even if the change fails to benefit us—even if it causes us harm in some way—if our sense of fairness is satisfied, we’re far more likely to accept and even embrace it.

When explanations aren’t forthcoming, on the other hand, poor outcomes frequently ensue.  Employees who don’t understand the reason for management’s decisions are at risk of becoming disgruntled, disempowered, and even depressed.  This leads to poorer job satisfaction, work quality, and customer service—and a diminishing work force (as employees seek employment elsewhere).  It also leads to anger against authority and a tendency to presume incompetence and even corruption.

The general public, for example, is provided little to no insight into the detailed thought processes that go into many governmental decisions.  How do we know our officials have considered all the angles and come to the best decision possible?  All we’re given is their decision and a political sound bite designed to provide the appearance of an explanation.

One wonders why so few politicians have tumbled to this secret:  a truly transparent thought process is the best defense against becoming unpopular.  Polls suggest the majority of the American public doesn’t like the health care law (even while finding itself in favor of many of its provisions).  Imagine if President Obama publicly described in detail the exact thinking that led him to sign it.  I don’t raise this possibility to complement or criticize the content of the law (I’ve already done both here), but to suggest the likely truth that felt ambivalent about it.  (How could he have liked everything in something so massive, drafted by so many different people?)  What if he told us about how much he struggled with the decision to accept the things he didn’t like in it and to let go of the things he couldn’t get included in order to sign into law the things he could and did?  Even if you hate the legislation, you might actually find his thought process reasonably sound.  And if you did, you might even ask yourself, perhaps for the first time, what you would have done had you been in his position.  You might, just for a moment, stop thinking about what you think the law means for the country and you personally and instead think about the decision to sign the bill from the point of view of the person who was faced with the decision whether or not to sign it.  It’s easy to criticize a decision—to feel that something was done to you rather than for you—when you only know what was decided and not why.

The negative impact of being left in the dark about why things are done the way they are can be so extreme for some people that explaining our thinking to others actually represents an opportunity to contribute to their well-being.  Research has suggested that taking the time to explain yourself will help your children develop a moral conscience, your students achieve mastery, your employees stay happy, and your personal relationships flourish.

And when you find yourself having an abruptly negative reaction to something someone else has done, fire up your empathy muscles and ask yourself (or, better yet, them) why they did what they did.  Start a dialogue instead of a conflict.  You never know:  you just might find their choice was actually a good one.

Next WeekThe Unlived Life

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  • If you were to substitute “want” for “need,” I’d tend to agree. Sometimes explanations aren’t in the cards, for a multitude of reasons—though I agree it’s nice to know.

    And then there’s John Ciardi’s viewpoint, which he conveys in this poem:


    Men marry what they need. I marry you,
    morning by morning, day by day, night by night,
    and every marriage makes this marriage new.

    In the broken name of heaven, in the light
    that shatters granite, by the spitting shore,
    in air that leaps and wobbles like a kite,

    I marry you from time and a great door
    is shut and stays shut against wind, sea, stone,
    sunburst, and heavenfall. And home once more

    inside our walls of skin and struts of bone,
    man—woman, woman—man, and each the other,
    I marry you by all dark and all dawn

    and have my laugh at death. Why should I bother
    the flies about me? Let them buzz and do.
    Men marry their queen, their daughter, or their mother

    by hidden names, but that thin buzz whines through:
    where reasons are no reason, cause is true.
    Men marry what they need. I marry you.

  • There are some questions for which there are no answers, i.e., why did someone in your family take their own life, and there is a negative impact of being in the dark.

  • Wow, Dr. Lickerman. I thought you less abrasive and more nuanced in your other posts.

    I had to stop to catch my breath at the “rape that girl”; I reluctantly decided to trudge on, but “mangled corpse lying beside a totaled car” pretty much sealed the deal for me. I won’t be finishing your blog tonight.

    Now you know “why.”


    Molly: Didn’t mean my examples to offend. I chose them because they happen and because we hunger to know why so strongly precisely because they’re so stark, especially the latter one in which the switch of emotion happens because our initial perception of the cause of the traffic jam is so different and less dramatic than the actual cause.


  • Thank you. Good thoughts at the right moment.

  • I do agree that we feel much better about following a course of action when we understand the whys, but what does one do when loyalty is called into question? When the thing one wishes to know comes up against another’s request for blind trust, based upon that person’s competency to choose a course of action? How do we achieve an understanding when the other feels that providing the “whys” is a form of diminshment?

    Lisa: My view is that anyone who asks for our blind trust is asking us to suspend our own judgment in favor of theirs, something none of us should ever do or accept.


  • Alex,

    I find your term “meaning-seeking” to be an interesting choice. I have gleaned a similar understanding in my own introspection, but it is slightly different. I see us humans as a “meaning-making” species.

    I think yours may be more accurate in the natural selection way—the evolutionary process rewarded those individuals that were able to *correctly* determine causes and effects, and use that knowledge to help feed themselves, and save themselves from harm. And hence propagate the species.

    But the “making” aspect is when we kinda-sorta “guess” at the meaning; that is, there is no demonstrable cause and effect, and so we just “make something up” to explain an event, since we have this instinctive need to find the meaning. I think of this mostly when I reflect on our ancestors attribution of natural events to supernatural powers. Something which has clearly gone on through our recorded history, but (somewhat surprisingly to me) continues in force today even though science has brought a pretty good understanding of those natural causes and effects. Not a complete understanding, mind you, since much of what we are trying to understand (and assign meaning to) really is very complex (e.g., the body’s self-healing processes)

    But I use the term “meaning-making” for another reason. Some of us seem driven to find the meaning of life, or more specifically, the meaning of our life. I would offer that at the grandest scale, that meaning is simply to evolve. That is how the universe is (apparently) designed, and it seems really quite elegant and inherently resilient, with built in trial-and-error mechanisms, which inherently avoid stagnation (and other evolutionary cul-de-sacs).

    But some (many?) of us look for the meaning in our lives to come from outside. For example, what is “God’s purpose” for my life? On the small scale of an individual’s life, the only answer I have come up with is to help alleviate suffering. And this need not come from an outside source, of course, but could/would give meaning to each person’s life from within. And, I believe, would contribute to the continued evolution of our species.

    So anyways, I just wanted to expand on your point that we humans seem to be imbued with “meaning-seeking” or “meaning-making” instincts. And I think we can take advantage of these instincts, and avoid certain pitfalls, if we reflect deeply on why we have these traits, and how we can best apply them to our own lives, and those of the other sentient beings that inhabit our planet.

    Thanks again for your continuing series of insightful posts.

    Steven: I agree with you.


  • As I read this I thought about the struggles my institution is having as we go through a strategic planning process. The communication between administration and faculty is not productive, and the failure to understand the faculty’s need to “make-meaning” is a part of it. The extra effort it takes to explain rather than tell and the fear of more information being somehow either misconstrued or used against one seem to inhibit communication. Along with respect for the human need to make meaning, there also needs to be a suspension of ill-will towards those we disagree with as we try to communicate.

  • Have you, perhaps, had a recent unpleasant experience with the TSA? That’s what came to mind as I read this post, which very succinctly lays out the reasons why the public despises them so much.

    The TSA epitomizes the lack of “insight into the detailed thought processes that go into many governmental decisions.” They even pride themselves on their opacity and arbitrariness, maintaining that keeping the public in the dark will keep aviation secure because it presumably keeps terrorists “off balance.” They insist that there is a valid reason behind everything they do, although we can never know what those reasons are because it’s all classified for National Security reasons. They repeatedly insist that we ignore what visibly makes no sense, and simply accept on faith that it makes sense to the very wise people at Headquarters who are turning all the classified “intelligence” into highly effective procedures.

    In other words, they’re promoting some sort of New Reality of the Age of Terror: not only are are we supposed to be ignorant of the “meaning” behind the hassles, but we’re supposed to welcome and appreciate that ignorance because secrecy is key to security. Don’t look for “meaning.” Don’t think about it. Just trust them.

    As you note, a lot of people don’t trust the TSA for good reason. (Although there are people who find the airport hassles reassuring, probably because they desperately want to believe that the government is protecting us.) The “negative reaction” is exactly as you state, at least for people who spend any time thinking about what’s going on rather than allowing themselves to be bamboozled with fear and wishful thinking.

    The irony is that, as you note, whatever security airport screening can provide would be much more effective is the TSA earned the public’s trust and confidence through transparency. They’d get better results if they treated us like adults who share their goal of aviation safe from terrorist threats, rather than as criminals, animals, or little children whose questions you answer with “because I said so.” But the TSA’s leadership apparently believes that they’re using the correct approach to security. And we’re just supposed to trust them on that.

    Hapgood: I share your sentiments. I find the TSA procedures and policies to be more “security theater” than real security. I have no doubt the employees are well-intentioned, but better explanations for TSA’s policies and procedures would go a long way, I think, toward creating a good partnership with the public, which then would go a long way to reducing passenger frustration (presuming the rationales for their policies and procedures actually are good ones).


  • A thought-provoking post, Alex. Thanks once again. In the past, not only did I want to know “why,” but if I wasn’t given a reason, I tended to “fill in the blank” in a negative way. Why was I asked to work an extra shift? If I wasn’t told otherwise, I’d have assumed it was so my boss could squeeze every last drop of work from me in order to increase his or her profits. This tendency had been a source of suffering in my life because when I would finally find out the reason for a person’s action or for some irritating circumstance (such as a traffic delay), more often than not, I turned out to be wrong in my initial judgment, sometimes to my great embarrassment.

    About 15 years ago, I was helped tremendously by a simple practice I learned from the writings of the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He encourages us to ask “Am I sure?” before drawing a conclusion or passing judgment. I first tried this practice in the most mundane of settings: waiting in line to check out at a clothing store. When the clerk asked who was next, a person next to me began to walk forward. I was 99% sure I was next, but I asked “Am I sure? Really sure?” I wasn’t and so I let the other person go ahead of me. Not only did I save her possible embarrassment but I even felt quite generous!

    That seemingly insignificant interaction was the beginning of a change in the way I approach the world, whether it be some small day-to-day encounter or a big decision in the political arena. I try to remember to suspend judgment until I’m given the reason for the action or until I’ve figured it out myself.

    The unexpected side effect of this has been a newfound freedom of sorts—a feeling of liberation from judgment. I discovered that the act of constantly judging others and circumstances was a tremendous burden. I’m glad to have the weight lifted.

    Toni: An awesome idea, one I remember from reading your book. Thanks for sharing it here.


  • I’m wondering how this relates to the concepts of letting go of the past and forgiveness, particularly in the context of one person deciding to end a relationship. What do you do when you ask why and, with all you know about the other person and how the relationship developed, the reasons given just don’t make sense?

    Rob: I think people often lie about the real reasons they end relationships because they don’t want to be hurtful. Whatever the reasons they do give, in the end the core reason is the same in all cases: they don’t want the relationship to continue. Whatever the specific reason for that may be, it often has as much to do with the person leaving as with the person who’s left (i.e., the person leaving may dislike something about the person they’re leaving that others won’t find problematic). For the sense of closure we all want, it can be frustrating not to hear something that makes sense, but when that knowledge isn’t forthcoming, we can only resolve to move on.


  • Interesting post! We certainly do have a need to figure out “why,” but I think it’s pretty ego-driven. When it comes to understanding the “why” of other people (e.g. Obama’s reasons for health care), we quickly tune out, no matter how much detail they go into.

    Perhaps the trick to being a good pol/administrator/manager is to make people figure out why the same way you did…not an easy task.

  • I like your topic but what I usually find more interesting is the responses from others. Had to go back and read it again as most seemed to have read a different one than I did. Makes it fun and thought provoking i guess. I will remember Thich though.

    David: I sometimes find myself having the same experience 😉


  • A very enlightening article indeed. However, I had few points to make.

    1) The act of reasoning itself is so subjective, that what may appear as reasonable and rational to one may be completely absurd for someone else. The contours of this difference are large and wide. Someone else’s non-reasonableness could be their reasonableness. How would you accommodate the difference at this very basic level? The level at which dialogue, conversation, etc. are rudimentary and what only exists is human, mysterious and unpredictable.

    2) The second point I would like to make is about the necessity of dialogue, as articulated in your article above, seems to assume that human interaction is very transactional, i.e, our understanding of the person in front is contingent upon his words and conversing skills, but I am sure you too understand the innumerable intangibles that act behind our understanding of the person in front of us. Would you like to accommodate that too in your article?

    3) Lastly, I have a generic question to ask you. What in your opinion, is the point at which reasoning of human stops re-cursing? Humans can explain everything in terms of some other unknown, which would rely on some other unknown and so on. However, we know that humans do stop at a point of reasoning and start from there. How do you think we humans reason then? Or is reasoning itself reasonable then?

    I understand my last question may not be appropriate in light of the article above, however, I would be obliged if you could answer it for me.

    Siddharth: Here are my thoughts:

    1) There’s a great difference between the “act of reason” and “reasonableness” in my mind. The act of reasoning follows the same rules for everyone. For example, a cannot equal a and b at the same time. What’s reasonable, on the other hand, is largely, though not entirely, subjective, as you say. As a result of that, it’s entirely possible that even someone who makes their thinking transparent won’t convince someone else who lives by an entirely different set of assumptions.

    2) Not entirely sure what your point is here. My post does presume communication is always possible between people, even if differences in intelligence, culture, and education make that communication difficult.

    3) Ultimately, of course, all thinking, all reasoning, is built on axioms we can’t prove. None of us (as far as I know) have found a chair to be a chair and a baby at the same time. The way we think and perceive the world around us is clearly constrained by the hardwiring of our brains. Perhaps then, the most fundamental axiom of all is that we must believe our brain mechanisms for perceiving and measuring the world are genuinely connected to the way the world is (even though we already know many of those mechanisms are flawed and can be fooled!).


  • The lack of “why” given by my neurologist on his decisions, diagnosis and prescriptions is exactly why I am seeking another doctor. Actually, he does give reasons, but they’re usually abbreviated, seemingly contrary to previous explanations, and generally overall don’t make sense to me. When I ask for further explanation he just gets annoyed and becomes condescending. I’ve hung in there for 3 years, mainly because he is considered one of the top docs in his field, but after my last appointment, I’ve decided I won’t be going back. I’m a fairly intelligent person, and just because I didn’t go to medical school doesn’t mean I’m just supposed to accept what a doctor says on blind faith. I’d been courteous with him up until the last couple of visits when my frustration boiled over, so I honestly don’t think any of my actions caused his lack of communication (although after my last appt, he probably won’t mind if I don’t come back).

    Thank you for your insights, Alex. I read your posts every week and find your insights invaluable.

    Leona: I’m glad they help. Sounds like you’re doing a good job advocating for your own health.


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  • I’m sorry, but this is only mostly true. The reasoning behind political decisions is often carefully explained, especially on candidate and officeholder websites. Our news media carefully screens this information, often substituting false information in its stead.

    Once one understands our corporate-owned news media as a player in politics in and of itself—or a set of players—then a lot of things start making more sense.