The Why Factor

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The concept that you can get ahead on your work and talents, also called meritocracy, is something we mostly agree is good. We also equate it with a fairer society, one where the social order is not determined by birth but one which gives us some sort of agency over our futures. However the term itself was coined as a warning. So why do we believe in it so strongly? The sociologist Michael Young first used the term to describe a dystopia where believing in meritocracy would legitimise inequality. We speak to his son, the journalist Toby Young, about his father’s and his own views about shortcomings of meritocratic societies. We hear from schoolgirls in inner-city London who question meritocracy, but are determined to get ahead in the world regardless. Entire cultures and societies are formed around the concept of meritocracy. Psychology Professor Shannon McCoy tells us about the American Dream and how buying into it can alter people’s well-being, and Prof Ye Liu tells us about the civil servant exams of ancient China and the country’s current relationship with meritocracy. Finally the author Anand Giridharadas cautions us about buying into this concept and gives us the view from both India and Silicon Valley, and consultant Joelle Emerson talks about how she tries to help tech companies in California hire more diverse workers. Presenter: Nastaran Tavakoli-Far Producer: Ivana Davidovic Editor: Richard Knight
Why is drinking coffee so compulsive, and controversial? Mike Williams explores the spread of coffee drinking, and why its production, and consumption, matters so much around the globe. He hears about coffee’s dark origins as a mystical drink, its social function in café societies, and its recent spread through trends such as ‘Seattle coffee culture’. Are tea-drinking cultures willing to be converted? And, as producing nations like Brazil, face huge variations in world prices and the long-term threat of climate change, what does coffee’s future look like? (Image: Hands holding coffee beans. Credit: AFP/Getty Images)
Ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics next month and the controversy surrounding Russia’s anti-gay laws, Mike Williams and a panel of guests discuss homosexuality. Essentially, why does it exist? Is there any evolutionary advantage? And what is the current thinking in the nature vs nurture debate? (Image: A participant unfolds a rainbow flag during a local annual gay pride parade. Credit: AFP/Getty Images)
Why do tens of millions of women all over the world choose to walk around in high heels? Where did the fascination with elevated footwear come from and what do they tell us about class, power and sex? It may surprise many to hear that high heels were first worn by men. (Image: Photograph taken of a woman in heels by Maria Pavlova - Getty)
Schadenfreude is a German word that means “harm-joy”. It is the pleasure we feel from someone else’s misfortune, and it can come in many shades. It is the laughter we can’t stifle when someone unexpectedly falls over, or the triumphant pleasure we feel when a rival is defeated. We can also feel it when something bad happens to someone we genuinely like. Edwina Pitman examines why, even when we’re happy and successful, we can’t help but enjoy others’ bad luck. Contributors: Esther Walker - journalist Dr Tiffany Watt Smith - cultural historian and author of Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune Professor Richard Smith - professor of psychology, University of Kentucky Dr Andre Szameitat - reader in psychology, Brunel University Anuvab Pal - Comedian Mike Wendling - Editor, BBC Trending Presented and produced by Edwina Pitman Editor: Richard Knight (Photo: Cheerful young woman lying on sofa with laptop in modern office lounge. Credit: Getty Images)
Dr Michael Mosley, a self-proclaimed 'proud pessimist', says that given a choice he would prefer to be an optimist, as pessimism affects his relationships and optimists tend to live longer. So he recently agreed to try and convert his darker outlook on life to a brighter one. Over seven weeks, his brain was manipulated by psychologists at Oxford University for a BBC documentary in order to try to turn Dr Mosley into an optimist. He reports back on the success or otherwise of the experiment. But do we have a choice? Ros Taylor says we do. Once a pessimistic average opera singer, she realised that her real passion in life was psychology. She retrained to become a clinical psychologist and claims to have taught herself to become a 'pragmatic optimist'. Mike Williams puts optimist Ros Taylor up against pessimist Michael Mosley to ask if the glass should be half-full or half-empty and why should we care? (Image: A glass of water on a wooden table. Credit: Getty Images)
We are told obesity is on the rise - globally. But if you think about it, how often do you see an obese chief executive, or tech entrepreneur, or politician even? Especially a female one. Perhaps the reason is because society discriminates against fat people. In this Why Factor we explore why it is OK to be anti-fat, where that attitude comes from, and what it feels like to be on the receiving end of society’s prejudice. Producer: Gemma Newby (Photo: A woman and a man sit together. Credit: Getty Images)
Why are we competitive? Is it a natural instinct? Should we nurture competition in our children so they learn that victory is the ultimate goal and that only the fittest survive? Or do we over emphasise the importance of competition at the expense of all else? Jo Fidgen explores why we are so reliant on competition and what it means for our future success. She finds out how hormones affect our competitive behaviour and whether men are always more competitive than women. (Photo: two hurdlers competing against each other at the Shanghai Stadium in China, Credit: Getty Images)
Crying emotional tears is uniquely human. We cry over almost anything and for almost any reason – from tears of sadness to tears of joy. Music can induce them, films, stories and television news too. We do not produce tears when we are first born – it takes a few months until we are able to. But once we can, we do it right up until our final days. So why do we cry? Mike Williams traces some of the competing theories of tears with the help of scientists, psychologists, and a historian. He also watches as an actress is made to cry by her acting coach. (Image: A tear drops falls from a person's eye . BBC copyright)
Although we assume a natural right to privacy, we readily give it away on our mobile phones and on social media websites. So as technology alters the very definition of what privacy is and the science of surveillance becomes ever more acute, is the idea of privacy little more than a quaint last-century notion? Mike Williams traces its history, and ponders what a society without privacy might look like. (Image: Girls peer through a crack in the door. Credit: AFP/Getty Images)
Why do we use jargon - the deliberate obfuscation of language? Or in other words, saying things in a way that makes it difficult to understand. George Orwell, in the early 20th Century, hated this ‘inflated style’ of writing and there have been many attempts to get rid of it. In the 1940s Sir Ernest Gowers from the British Civil Service wrote a book - Plain Words - which has been reprinted again and again, most recently by his great grand-daughter who tells presenter Mike Williams why jargon is just as bad today as it ever was. It has been blamed for pulling the wool over the eyes of the general public and it’s the same all over the world. (Photo: The classic work Plain Words, originally written and published by Sir Ernest Gowers who wanted to see the English language free of jargon. BBC copyright)
Why do some people refuse to be rich? The lottery winner who gave it all away, the vegetable stall holder who never allowed herself to accumulate wealth, and the businessman who sold his big house and flashy car to set up a Christian project in Uganda tell their stories. (Photo: Hands holding money. Credit: Momentstock) The music in this programme has been changed from the original broadcast.
Mike Williams asks why some weeks just fly by but sometimes minutes can seem like hours? Why do we perceive time differently in different circumstances? Mike talks to Pakistani writer and broadcaster Raza Rumi; Claudia Hammond, author of Time Warped; David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine at Houston and John McCarthy, a British journalist taken hostage in Lebanon in 1986. (Photo: Hands of a clock over female silhouette. Credit: Shutterstock)
Open plan offices, hot-desking, group brainstorming sessions: collaboration seems to be king in the modern workplace. Recent studies have found that we are spending up to 80% of our working days either in meetings or dealing with requests from our colleagues. But is working together really the best way? Is the idea of collaboration something we’re fetishising at the cost of productivity and creativity, and have we lost sight of the benefits of working alone? Nastaran Tavakoli-Far shares her own dislike of the BBC’s open-plan office and asks, in some desperation: why should we work together? Guests: Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Bring Your Brain to Work Kerstin Sailer, reader in social and spatial networks, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking John Maeda, global head of design at Automattic Image: Workers in an open-plan office (Credit: Getty Images)
If the idea of being all alone, in silence, for long periods of time fills you with dread, it might be hard to understand why anyone would choose to be a hermit. But throughout history and across all cultures, there have been people who choose to leave behind the life and people they know to live in isolation and silence. This week, Shabnam Grewal asks: why do people become hermits? Guests: Sara Maitland - writer, feminist and Catholic hermit. Ansuman Biswas - artist and part-time hermit Michael Finkel - writer of The Stranger in the Woods, about American hermit Christopher Knight Meng Hu - former librarian who runs a website called Hermitary Prof Takahiro Kato - psychiatrist who specialises in hikikomori Music by Ansuman Biswas and Stanley Keach. Image: An isolated log cabin (Credit: Getty Images)
Anyone who has ever been in a meeting has seen the phenomenon of "Groupthink" first hand. The will of the crowd over shadows the wisdom of individuals and it can lead to dangerous consequences. Mike Williams asks why humans succumb to "Groupthink" and how we fight the tendency to follow the herd even if it leads to very perilous outcomes. (Photo: A meeting. Credit: Shutterstock)
Many jobs require workers to manage their emotional expressions with others. Flight attendants are expected to smile and be friendly even in stressful situations, carers are expected to show empathy and warmth, whereas bouncers and prison guards might need to be stern or aggressive. This management of emotions as part of a job is called ‘emotional labour’. It is something many people perform on top of the physical and mental labour involved in their work. Psychologists have shown that faking emotions at work, and suppressing real feelings, can cause stress, exhaustion and burnout. These efforts can be invisible, and that sometimes allows employers to exploit them. Nastaran Tavakoli-Far speaks to sociologists, psychologist, economists and bartenders and asks why we should value emotional labour.
Alcohol has been part of human civilisation for thousands of years. Evidence from pottery residues suggests that people in ancient China may have been enjoying the delights of wine as long ago as 9,000 years. But our attraction to the ethanol molecule may go back much further than that – to a time when our distant ancestors were eating nothing but fruit. So why do we drink the stuff? And why do some people have problems controlling their drinking? (Image: Scenes of debauchery and drunkenness in "Gin Lane and Beer Street" London, circa 1751. Credit: Getty Images)
Last names tell a story. Your last name could determine your career. It could decide how easily you move through society or alternatively how hard it could be to get ahead. Some last names grow longer and longer as they carry a family story from generation to generation. Others stagger under a double barrel as partners perpetuate their own last names through their children and a hyphen. So what’s in a last name? A whole lot as Mike Williams discovers in The Why Factor. (Image: A mixture of surnames from around the world. BBC Copyright)
Why has one of the world’s most important scientists been forgotten? Fritz Haber was the brilliant German Jewish chemist who used nitrogen to help feed billions, but arguably, kill millions. He worked with something without which, we'd all be dead. It's in our DNA and the plants we eat could not exist without it. Find out why with Mike Williams. (Image: Fritz Haber Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Wood is a vital human resource. But trees inspire myths and reverence. So, Mike Williams asks, why are our feelings about trees so mixed? He hears why every human age is a ‘wood age’, why trees are crucial to social life in African cities, why one New Zealander swapped cutting trees for spending nights in them, and why Danes fear global disease and climate change may lose them their mythical ‘tree of life’. (Image: An arborist works on top of a tree at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. London Credit: Getty Images)
Instagram’s one billion users love architecture. If you search for #architecture, you will get hundreds of millions of results. Some architecture publications have more followers than household names like Cosmpolitan for example. We also seem to love to use buildings as a backdrop to our own vanity, as the number of selfies on Instagram proves. But if architecture is so popular on the platform, does that mean that architects are now starting to design our buildings and public spaces to be Instagrammable? Australian architect Scott Valentine tells us that is increasingly what clients are asking for. So much so, he’s created an Instagram design guide for architects. Carl Turner, who is behind the new multi-use building called Peckham Levels in London, which is also very popular on the app, says that Instagrammability was on the clients’ brief. We also hear from architect Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, who works for Rem Koolhaus’s Office of Metropolitan Architecture. He is worried how the need to be always be on social media affects up-coming architects. Travel writer Helen Coffey explains how cities are exploiting Instagram to attract visitors with installations and space design – from big, signature pieces like Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel in New York to fairly crude attempts featuring temporary pastel walls with fake flowers and large letters spelling a city’s name. But it is not just conventionally pretty and shiny that catches the eye of Instagrammers. St Louis photographer Demond Meek became popular with his haunting photos of dilapidated houses in his city. He credits the immediacy of the platform for getting him out of a creative rut. Art and architecture historian Philip Ursprung points out that photography and architecture have a long, common history, but also warns that many new cities are increasingly created to look good on photos and from afar, but are out of proportion and unpleasant to be in. Presenter: Ivana Davidovic Producer: Rose De Larrabeiti Editor: Richard Knight Image: Monster Building (Quarry Bay) Hong Kong Credit: Getty Images
Why can’t we judge art at face value? How does the identity, behaviour and cultural context of the artist play a part in how we approach their artwork? Edwina Pitman explores why we can’t seem to separate the art from the artist. Guests: John Myatt, artist Paul Bloom, Professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University Michelle Hartney, artist Lionel Shriver, novelist Ananya Mishra, PhD researcher in English, University of Cambridge Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programs, National Coalition Against Censorship, New York Bob Sturm, Associate Professor in Speech, Music and Hearing at Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm Presented and Produced by Edwina Pitman Editor: Richard Knight (Photo: Woman looking at the Pablo Picasso painting The Dream. Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Why do the rich want to get richer? Why when you’ve got a million or even a billion do you want more? Mike Williams asks a multi-billionaire and a multi-millionaire what drives them to keep making more money. He also speaks to a banker, who looks after the wealthy and a football agent, who represents high paid players and tries to discover whether the rich are different from everyone else. (Photo: Image of a superyacht believed to belong to a Vodka Tycoon. Credit: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
A recent study has shown that sad music has become increasingly popular, but why do people choose to listen to it, and what goes on in the brain and the body when they do so? Helena Merriman speaks to Japanese pianist and music researcher Dr Ai Kawakami who has some surprising answers about some of the positive feelings people experience when they listen to sad music. American writer Amanda Stern tells Helena why she regularly listens (and cries) to sad music and British composer Debbie Wiseman, known for her moving TV and film scores, explains what makes a piece of music sound sad. You’ll also hear pieces of sad music suggested by BBC listeners from all over the world. (Photo: A woman with headphones on, listening to sad music. BBC copyright)
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Podcast Details

Sep 14th, 2012
Latest Episode
Feb 3rd, 2020
Release Period
No. of Episodes
Avg. Episode Length
20 minutes

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