I want to ask about what emotion motivated someone to do something. Can the phrase "what were you thinking when you..." be used for this? It seems kind of unnatural to ask, "what were you feeling when you..." I googled "what were you feeling to" and didn't come up with anything. When I googled "what were you thinking to" I came up with lots of stuff, but they seemed to be all inquiries about the logic that drove them to do something, not the emotion that drove them to do it.

If "what were you thinking to" and "what were you feeling to" can't be used, then what phrase can? The nearest thing I can think of is, "what made you do it," but that doesn't seem to be quite what I'm looking for.

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    Why would you assume that the person's inexplicable behaviour was caused by non-obvious emotions, rather than what we normally call "thought"? In normal contexts, just ask about the thinking. If in fact some emotion is the motivating force, the person will simply say so, without even noticing your somewhat forced distinction between these two mental processes. Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 5:37
  • Like say the action is one that is normally driven by emotion, not logic, but the person's emotional state is not obvious. Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 5:40
  • I'm flummoxed. What types of actions are commonly understood to be driven by emotion, not logic? Voiding your bowels in terror? I can hardly imagine asking why someone did that. Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 6:05
  • Things like kissing and stuff like that. Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 6:21
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    Thought and emotion aren't as easily separated as you seem to be assuming. In particular, logic is not the same thing as thought at all.
    – user1579
    Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 12:18

5 Answers 5


I think the following are all reasonably neutral:

What led you to... ?
What motivated you to... ?
How were you feeling when you... ?
What prompted you to ... ?
Why did you... ?

If you want to convey approval, try:

What inspired you to... ?

(Inspiration is generally seen as a good thing.)

If you want to convey disapproval:

What possessed you to... ?

(When people talk about people being possessed there is often a connotation of "for an evil purpose"; the most prominent possessing being is the devil.)

Of course, words alone are often not sufficient to convey your feelings; context and tone of voice matter too. "What were you thinking?" can be highly negative, as already pointed out, or neutral.


Perhaps, but tread lightly. "What were you thinking ..." is often a softer way of saying "well, that was pretty stupid". If you watch your intonation, you'll get the real question across, but if you're at all excited when speaking (or if it's presented in writing), then the listener (or reader) is likely to assume you're questioning their sanity or intelligence.


You might try What inspired you to...? As @Stan Rogers pointed out, "What were you thinking?" is often used to mean Are you insane? or Were you born this stupid, or did you take lessons? - in fact, I'd say it's used more often in that sense than as a sincere question, so there's a very real danger of being misunderstood.

Note: Even synonymous phrases such as "What inspired you?" can be used in a negative sense (although What possessed you? would be more clearly negative), so you still need to be careful with your phrasing and intonation.

  • That's pretty good. What about "what moved you to..." and "what made you...?" Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 5:48
  • @language - I like "what moved you to"; I would avoid "what made you"; both are purely subjective, however.
    – MT_Head
    Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 5:50
  • It's true that 'moved' and 'inspired' relate more to emotion than rational thought, but whatever words are used in the question, it nets down in the hearer's mind to Why? Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 6:08
  • @Fumble - You're in an awfully reductionist mood, aren't you? It's true that most social interaction could be achieved in monosyllables, but sometimes people want some nuance.
    – MT_Head
    Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 6:28
  • "Inspired" tends to have a positive connotation to it, doesn't it? I need a word that doesn't lean either towards the positive or negative, since the emotion could be either. In this case "moved" would be better, right? Are there any other words that are like this? Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 8:39

The What were you thinking when you... usage occurs quite naturally if someone did something that seems inexplicably to the speaker. It's just a somewhat roundabout way of saying Why did you...

I suspect situations suitable for saying What were you feeling when you... arise much less often, but the normal expression would in any case be How did you feel when you..." These contexts are apparently not relevant to OP here.

For OP's situation I think it would be odd if you already knew the motivation was emotional rather than rational, and even more strange to reflect that knowledge in the phrasing of the question.

In practice, if some emotional state were to be the cause of whatever inexplicable action was being queried, the answer would simply indicate that in response to either of my first two questions.

Q:"What were you thinking when you had sex with him?" A:"I was in love"

  • "What were you feeling" and "how did you feel" don't seem to be asking about the emotional motivation behind the action, rather the emotional feeling when the action was taking place. Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 5:36
  • @language hacker: That's quite true, but the question OP seems to want to ask is exceptionally odd to my mind. Per my edit, it's unnecessary to ask differently anyway. Besides, just plain Why did you covers all possibilities without forcing the questioner to decide whether the motivation is rational or emotional before asking. Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 5:49

I want to ask about what emotion motivated someone to do something.

I reckon the question you could use would then be:

What did you feel that made you do this?


What were you thinking, that made you do it?

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    It's very difficult to imagine many non-contrived situations where the reply would be anything other than a 'rationale'. Effectively based on rational thought, not emotions. People usually try to rationalise emotional actions anyway, and cunning phrasing of questions won't usually deflect them (unless you're a psychotherapist, I suppose! :) Commented Jun 24, 2011 at 6:01

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