Research

Charles Tilly’s “Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons and Why”

Part of Series: “Questions & Answers: On the Art and Science of Survey Research”

Why? That’s the question we researchers want the answer to all the time. But when we ask it, we never get the truth we’re looking for. What we get is a response that is driven by the social context in which we ask it. In other words, people give us the answers they think we are looking for, not the real underlying reason.

Eminent sociologist and social historian Charles Tilly has written a brilliant book entitled “Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons…and Why”. In it, he explains “people do not give themselves or others reasons because of some universal craving for truth or coherence. They often settle for reasons that are superficial, contradictory, dishonest or—at least from an observers point of view—farfetched. Whatever else they are doing when they give reasons, people are clearly negotiating their social lives. They are saying something about relations between themselves and those who hear their reasons.”

Why seems like such an easy question to ask. But we all know that the answers we get are never really satisfactory. “Why is that?” you might well ask.

In addition to the fact people tell us what we think we want to hear (or what they want to tell us) the reality is we are generally incapable of being conscious of why we do what we do. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandransummed it 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”.

That’s why we at Vision Critical encourage measuring “why” through derived means, rather than asking why. By derived we mean measuring behavior and perceptions (like brand image or attitudes toward a product or service) and then looking at how the two overlap. For instance, if we find that “a sexy brand” is very strongly correlated with usage of that brand, we can be sure that people are using it because it makes them feel sexy—even though that would probably not be a reason they would tell us if we asked why.

The bottom line: Don’t ask why. The answer you’ll get is not the answer you’re looking for. Measure “why” indirectly and you’ll get closer to the truth.

Reading:

“Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons…and Why”
Charles Tilly. Princeton University Press. Princeton NJ. 2006



Subscribe to the Vision Critical blog

Get free customer intelligence tips and resources delivered weekly to your inbox.

By completing this form you consent to receive emails from Vision Critical. You can unsubscribe at any time. Learn more in our privacy policy.