Alex Lickerman M.D.

Happiness in this World

Why We Need To Know Why

How knowing the reason for things shapes how we respond to them

Posted Nov 15, 2010

Photo: nathanborror

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 for 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.

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