When people come to see me, they often ask, "I don't know why I get so angry... so anxious... so upset...?" And it seems natural to want to find out why, because if we know the reason why then we can do something about it, can't we?
So when I started training to become a counsellor, I learnt how to ask questions, except much to my surprise there was one question which I wasn't supposed to ask, because it wasn't a good question, and that question was...
As a group we look puzzled by this revelation, and so our tutor told us that the reason we don't ask why, is because why questions ask people to reason, and thinking takes us away from the feeling, and in counselling we explore feelings.
And that answer never seemed complete to me, because people do sit with me and reason, they do think as well as feel, and sometimes having a sense of why you do something is really helpful.
When why is helpful
That is when it helps you make sense of yourself. When it leads to understanding.
One particular instance is following a trauma, often our response is to dissociate. To separate off and distance ourselves from parts of our experience. This helps us survive the trauma.
However, doing this prevents us making meaning out of our experience, because we do not have all the information we need to make sense of what happened to us.
And making sense of what happened to us, is one way we heal from a trauma.
I will also sometimes explain things to people I see, because being able to make sense of why something is happening can help. So for instance one thing about anxiety is that you can get anxious about being anxious, which can make your anxiety spiral. But if you can understand that your anxiety is a natural reaction caused by a part of your brain, then this can help you feel less anxious about being anxious.
And I will sometimes go through these sorts of explanations when people tell me they don't know why they reacted the way they did. However something very interesting quite often happens. A couple of weeks later the person will come back in, and ask the same question again.
The reason this happens is not because the person didn't understand the explanation, the reason is to do with why we need reasons in the first place. And the reason we need a reason is not so we can understand something. We need reasons for an entirely different reason altogether...
Living in the "age of reason"
The "age of reason" or the Enlightenment was a period which led not only to our more liberal views on things like equality and human rights, it also led to science being the dominant way the world is understood.
And if you want evidence that we are living in a post-enlightenment world, then you only need to walk out your front door, and put your keys in the ignition of your car.
Because what makes your car possible, is the notion that what separates human beings from other animals is our capacity to reason. Without it, we would still be living in small tribal groups.
Except there is a problem with this idea, as psychologists found out when they started to test human beings for their capacity to reason.
Human beings in general are rather irrational!
Try this logic problem for size...
If Mary has an essay to write, she will study late in the library.
From a purely logical viewpoint, then the correct answer is,
Mary will study late in the library
This problem was set by Ruth Byrne in her now famous 1989 study . The second statement doesn't provide us with sufficient information to determine what Mary will do, and is inherent in the first statement. The library must be open in order for Mary to study late.
In Ruth Byrne's study only 38% of the participants got this problem correct. Interestingly when she left out the second statement participants had no problem deducing that Mary would study late. Putting the second redundant statement in caused the only safe part that could be logically reasoned to crumble.
The literature is full of examples such as this one. Daniel Kahneman has forged a life time career out of demonstrating human irrationality, which he summarises in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.
Reasons are too easy to come by
So if you are thinking that reasoning evolved in humans to give us a competitive advantage and make us better at problem solving, you might now be wondering why it is chock full of flaws and fallacies.
And you might also want to wonder just why it is, that we are so good at having reasons for things, when don't know would be the more honest answer. Bystander experiments are one area, where what people say they will do, and what they actually do are two completely different things.
So for example, in this experiment , participants were asked to sit in a room and do a test. Meanwhile in another room, a researcher would pretend to fall over and hurt themselves, making a lot of noise in the process. The researchers were interested in whether the participants would help or not.
The participants were split into two groups. In one they sat on their own, while in the other they sat with someone who pretended to be a participant, who when the 'incident' happened would make a non-committal shrug and carry on with the test.
The participants who sat on their own were 10x more likely to help.
Each of the participants were then asked for the reason they did or did not help, and they were easily able to give a reason, which was mostly to do with whether they thought the person was all right or whether they thought someone else would help.
But when the group who sat with a researcher were asked whether the other person influenced their decision, the participants all claimed that the researcher's response had no influence on them.
And this result turns up time and time again in studies... the reasons given by the participants does not explain their subsequent behaviour.
So you may be wondering if reason isn't that great at solving problems, and is also pretty bad at helping you understand why you do things, then just what are reasons really for?
What reasons are really for
This idea was developed by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber , who both work at the Cognitive Science Institute at The French National Centre for Scientific Research.
They started with the same enigma. If reason evolved to solve problems, then why wasn't it very good at it? They used the notion of the brain as consisting of modules as a way of understanding what was going on.
The thermostat on your wall is a module. It senses changes in temperature, and then sends a signal to the boiler to turn the heating on and off. It has no idea that it is connected to a boiler, the only thing it 'knows' is whether the temperature has reached a particular threshold. Brains are like this. They are made of many interconnected modules, each part performing a particular function, without knowing why they are performing it. The linking together of all these modules is what produces the complex behaviour of a human being.
They then looked at human reasoning as a module, and asked what its function could be. The answer they came up with was...
That reason had evolved to serve a social function. It was more critical to our survival that reason was good at helping us to be able to co-operate in social groups, than it was at solving problems.
We primarily use reason to relate to other human beings...
And in human beings, you and me, it has 3 main functions,
Say it's my wedding anniversary, and I was planning to buy some flowers at lunchtime, only I forget and don't remember until I get home. Clearly I am going to need to explain myself to my spouse. If I just say I forgot, especially as I had joined a colleague in the pub for lunch, then this probably won't be sufficient.
So I might try a reason such as, "Work has been really stressful lately, we have been working to a deadline, and my head is just so full of work at the moment, I forgot... sorry..."
What I am doing here is justifying my forgetfulness with a much more acceptable reason. Work is a valued activity, and I have to go to work don't I? And also I am deflecting my spouse's anger away from my forgetfulness, towards eliciting an empathic response for my situation.
If I had tried, "I was with a colleague and it slipped my mind," then this would be very likely to anger my spouse and they may well have told me,
"That's not a reason to forget!"
You can hear this kind of language used quite frequently, and we may also say it ourselves when we are apologising. So, although my reason for forgetting was very clearly a reason, it doesn't count as one, because it wasn't deemed sufficiently acceptable.
So having to justify ourselves to others is a system of social control, because we have to be able to give reasons which are sufficiently socially acceptable, especially if our actions fall outside normal social mores. Thus, it limits what we can do and how we can behave.
And if you think that some reasons aren't actually reasons, then perhaps you can see how conflicts can occur between people of different social groups, who will have different sets of what does and does not count as a reason.
It also directs our actions towards socially sanctioned activities, because you don't generally have to give a reason for doing them, or at least you won't be interrogated at length about them.
The justifcation that I gave to my spouse also serves as a justification to myself. If I thought I was just absentminded, then what I have done is to locate a potentially undesirable quality in myself, forgetfulness, and also opened up a can of worms. Because shouldn't I have been thinking about our anniversary, rather than laughing and joking with my colleague? Shouldn't my spouse be more important to me?
Whereas if I locate my forgetfulness outside myself - in work, then this undesirable quality doesn't belong to me, it belongs to work. And so I can focus on all the problems with work, rather than on myself and my own forgetfulness, and what this may mean for my relationship.
And this is a very common way people justify what would otherwise be undesirable traits, or actions. And again just as with justifying ourselves to others serves to limit our behaviour, so does having to justify ourselves to ourselves.
It also leads to problem solving behaviour. So when we have a reason for something we are led to seek a solution for it. So I might be led to try to solve my forgetfulness by seeking solutions to my work 'problem'.
And you can also see why the subjects in the bystander experiment got it so wrong about the influence of the non-committal researcher. Because people also do the reverse - we like to locate desirable traits, such as being independent individuals, in ourselves rather than assign to them to an outside agency.
We also use reasons to persuade others, because just wanting something is rarely sufficient.
Say I have been hankering after a new car. If I tell my spouse that I just happen to want one, then this is very unlikely to be persuasive. However, if I point out our car is old, getting unreliable, and looking a bit shabby, so when I go to visit customers it doesn't make a good impression. Then these reasons are going to be much more persuasive.
When we are trying to persuade others, we almost invariably give them a reason as to why they should or should not do something we want. That is almost always our default strategy.
The other really important point about reasons is that they create a direction and purpose. They create motivation, so when we have a reason for doing something, we are much more likely to carry through with it. And if we can persuade other people that our reasons are valid, then we can instill motivation, direction and purpose in them too. If I can persuade my spouse that getting a loan to buy a car is a good use of our finances, they may even help me to buy it.
And now perhaps you can also see why people are really interested in why other people do things. Because if you know what a person's reasons for doing something are, you know what motivates them, and if you know what motivates them, then their actions become predictable. And you can also work out what kinds of reasons will persuade them.
Reason in counselling
As a counsellor, asking why opens up this minefield, which is why as a rule counsellors do not use why questions.
Not only does it lead to thinking rather than feeling, denying ourselves a valuable resource, it also leads to problem solving behaviour. And while problem solving can be a valuable, you have to be able to understand what the problem is, before you can attempt to solve it.
And if my reasoning is based on justifying myself, then like the forgetfulness example, the chances are I may be trying to solve the wrong problem. Which very much fits with my personal experience of seeing people. Problem solving approaches in the early stages of counselling rarely work. They work better later on when the person has a deeper understanding of themselves.
The other main reason for not using why as a question, is because it taps into this system of social justification. If you ask someone why they do something, then what you are generally asking them to do is to justify their actions or behaviour.
Firstly the idea that we need to justify ourselves to another is an anathema to the humanistic tradition, which holds that our existence is justified simply by being born.
And secondly why questions are often used to discover the person's motivations and so be able to persuade them on another course of action.
So when a parent asks their child, "Why don't you want to go to school?" they are as much interested in how to get them to go to school, as to find out why they don't want to go. When the child gives their answer, the next thing the parent does is to make a judgement as to whether the reason they gave was sufficiently good enough or not.
Being judged, or feeling that you might be judged is unhelpful in the counselling room. It gets in the way of building a trusting relationship with your counsellor, which is one of the important ingredients, which helps counselling work.
Two better questions
So if you want to understand yourself or another person, and why is generally a poor question, what kinds of questions can you ask?
How and what are much better questions.
They are broader and often lead to deeper explanations. In the bystander experiment, if the researchers had asked how and what questions, instead of why, then it might have looked more like this...
Researcher: When you heard the noise how did you feel?
What you will notice by taking this tack, is that the shift in thinking and feeling that happens after looking at the other person has appeared. There is now an opportunity for the participant to notice the impact the other person's response has on them, and so deduce that their actions affected them.
How and what allow why to emerge
And I will leave you with one last better question...
What did you notice?
Noticing yourself and how you are in the presence of other people, is an essential element in truly understanding yourself.
 Ruth Byrne, 1989, Suppressing valid inferences with conditionals
 Latane & Rodin, 1969, A lady in distress: inhibiting effects of friends and strangers on bystander interventions
 The Enigma of Reason, 2017, by Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber