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Permission to Sin: Why The 7 Deadlies Aren't So Terrible After All

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Scientists have found that the seven deadly sins aren't all bad. Consider this your official permission to give in to temptation.

1. SLOTH

Quit beating yourself up about your unused gym membership: It’s only 10 percent your fault! Turns out, laziness is largely genetic. In 2004, Timothy Lightfoot, currently a kinesiologist at Texas A&M University, began publishing studies about what separates athletes from couch potatoes. He bred two types of mice—energetic and lazy—and then measured how far they ran on the exercise wheel. Active mice clocked five to eight miles per day—the equivalent of a human running two marathons in a row. By contrast, the sedentary mice ambled about 0.3 miles per day, with the laziest of the bunch stuffing wood shavings around the wheel to turn it into a bed. When Lightfoot examined the rodents’ DNA, he found that heredity accounted for about 50 percent of the differences in their activity levels. Since then, studies on humans suggest that up to 90 percent of our energy levels are controlled by genetics.

But there’s a reason laziness hasn’t been weeded out of the gene pool. Back when our cave-dwelling ancestors weren’t scrounging for food or running from saber-toothed tigers, they lounged to conserve calories. Even in civilized society, where inventions from banana peelers to Segways encourage sloth, laziness can give us an edge. One 2011 study by University College London found that employees who work more than 11 hours a day have a 67 percent higher risk of heart disease than slackers. Other studies have linked long work hours to higher levels of stress, fatigue, depression, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic infections, diabetes, and death. Yikes! Sounds like you’re safer staying on the couch.

2. LUST

Of all the cardinal sins, lust has perhaps the most obvious good points (procreation!) and as long as you avoid its potentially nasty side effects (chlamydia!) it can be measurably good for your health.

In a Duke University study that followed 252 North Carolina residents over 25 years, medical sociology professor Erdman Palmore found that men who had sex more than once a week lived two years longer on average than men who had it less often. For women, quality trumped quantity: Those who said they enjoyed sex lived seven to eight years longer than women who weren’t so into it. Sex keeps people alive and kicking, Palmore says, because it comes with both physical and psychological benefits. “It gets your heart pumping, plus it makes you feel good about life,” he says.

If a longer life span isn’t convincing enough, here’s another perk: improved public speaking skills. In a 2006 study, Stuart Brody at the University of Paisley in Scotland forced volunteers to give a speech to a panel of bored judges. After the orators slinked offstage, Brody took their blood pressure, which was sky-high for most—except for the people who, in diaries of their activities, said they’d had intercourse at some point in the past two weeks. Sex, it seems, doesn’t just keep us calm; it’s a pretty good antidote for stage fright.

3. ENVY

At the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan, scientists slid 19 volunteers into an MRI machine, then summoned the green-eyed monster by presenting them with a description of someone who had it all—great job, great relationship, great life. As participants read about the high achiever, an area of their brains called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) ignited. This spot also flares in the presence of physical pain, proving that envy really does hurt. However, ACC activation was only induced when the subject and object were similar in sex, age, class, or background. “[If] the possession of the target person is superior and the comparison domain is self-relevant, we feel intense envy,” reported Hidehiko Takahashi in a 2009 study.

But feeling intense jealously actually spurs the envious to improve their performance. “Individuals experiencing envy in response to another’s advantage are being appropriately alerted to the advantage and motivated to commence corrective action,” note psychologists Sarah Hill and David Buss in the book Envy: Theory and Research. “Over the course of evolutionary time, individuals who did not feel subjective discomfort in these situations would likely have been out-competed by their more envious counterparts.”

Some scientists have even proposed that envy may help explain why humans are less prone to hierarchy than many species and are constantly rebelling against kings and dictators. Nader Habibi, an economics professor at Brandeis University, argues that Tunisia’s successful 2011 rebellion against president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali sparked a wave of “democracy envy” throughout the Middle East, leading to riots that toppled other despots, starting with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. “What happened in Tunisia filled Egyptians with envy,” Habibi says. “For the average Egyptian, the emotional cost of living under Mubarak’s authoritarian rule suddenly rose skyhigh. ‘Are we less courageous than the Tunisians?’ they asked one another. As this question echoed in their ears, envy turned to outrage, compelling them into the streets. The rest, of course, is history.”

4. GREED

Between Bernie Madoff and, well, everyone involved in the financial crisis of 2008, greed has gotten a bad rap. One of the most confounding questions: Why do wealthy bankers and CEOs still want more? In 2000, financial reporter Jason Zweig set out to answer this question by having his brain scanned via MRI when he played gambling games. During one experiment, scans revealed that his brain lit up like a slot machine while he anticipated winning five bucks. Once he’d earned the money, however, his neural circuits cooled off. “Making money feels good, all right; it just doesn’t feel as good as expecting to make money,” Zweig explains. “In a cruel irony that has enormous implications for financial behavior, your investing brain comes equipped with a biological mechanism that is more aroused when you anticipate a profit than when you actually get one.”

In an evolutionary sense, of course, greed is essential to survival. When resources are scarce, people who hog more than their fair share will last longer than those who don’t. And it goes beyond individuals. Economists in Switzerland have found that a moderate level of greed is beneficial for society as a whole. In 2010, Dirk Helbing, a professor of sociology, modeling, and simulation at ETH Zurich, announced that he’d designed a computer model to test the effects of greed on social cohesion. Not surprisingly, a high greed society led to a “freeloader effect” where everyone was out for themselves and anarchy reigned. But the low greed society, long thought of as the utopian ideal, was also bad for social cohesion: Individuals had such a low threshold for contentment that they didn’t bother pitching in to the common good. In the moderate greed model, Helbing writes, “cooperation and agglomeration emerged, reaching a stationary state where clearly more than one half of the population is cooperative and individuals tend to agglomerate and form cooperative clusters.” In other words, a little greed is good for society.

5. GLUTTONY

Need a good excuse to cram handfuls of pork rinds into your maw? Science has your back. While there are plenty of downsides to weight gain (studies show heavier people don’t get hired or promoted as much), an expanding waistline can tip certain scales in your favor.

In 2005, Leif Nelson, a professor at New York University, published a paper detailing how he’d parked himself in front of the college cafeteria and asked entering and exiting students to write down their ideal weight preference in a mate. Surprisingly, men changed their answers based on two factors. Those who hadn’t eaten yet wrote that they preferred their girlfriends to weigh an average of 125.5 pounds—2.7 pounds heavier than men who’d already had their fill of cafeteria fare. And those with less money in their wallets preferred women to weigh 127.2 pounds—2.3 pounds heavier than men who had plenty of cash. Nelson’s theory is that our less prosperous evolutionary pasts are to blame. Back in our cavedwelling days, a few extra pounds on a woman didn’t spell the difference between a size six and an eight; they determined whether she could stave off starvation a little longer, giving a man ample time to bring home the mammoth bacon. On the other hand, Nelson found that women’s tastes in a man’s weight remained constant regardless of whether they’d eaten or how much money they had.

For men, a few extra pounds come with even more surprising benefits. In a 2010 study by the University of Missouri, volunteers were shown pictures of politicians, some of which had been doctored to make the politicos appear obese. When asked to rate how well these candidates would perform on the job, the portly men were deemed more trustworthy than the thin ones.

6. WRATH

As anyone who's driven in rush hour traffic can attest, wrath is a sin that’s hard to avoid. And while society tends to see angry people as irrational, those with tempers might be seeing things more clearly than their even-keeled friends. In 2007, UC Santa Barbara scientist Wesley Moons had volunteers write about their hopes and dreams, then trashed some of the essays right in front of the writers to push their buttons. After that, Moons presented written proposals on a variety of topics, like whether high schoolers should have to take comprehensive exams in order to graduate. In these proposals, some of the arguments were strong (“comprehensive exams improve students’ job prospects”) while others were noticeably weaker (“someone’s cousin took that exam so others should too”).

When Moons asked his study subjects to pick which case was most compelling, the irate volunteers didn’t waver: They chose the stronger argument. Meanwhile, the mellower control group seemed equally lulled by both strong and weak arguments. Anger, Moons concluded, appears to sharpen our analytical skills—most likely because it forces us to ignore irrelevant details. “Anger increases our attention and focus, which helps us process information more thoroughly,” says Moons. “We’ve moved from a time when anger is this terrible thing to a more nuanced view that it can be beneficial.”

7. PRIDE

Pride is traditionally considered the root of all sins—it’s what caused Satan to think he could do a better job than God, which got him kicked out of heaven. But as it turns out, our bodies are programmed for pride. In 2005, Julian Keenan of Montclair State University in New Jersey pinpointed the area of the brain responsible: the medial prefrontal cortex. In his experiments, Keenan managed to “turn off ” pride by asking volunteers to don a cap of electromagnetic coils that disrupted the firing of neurons via a process called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. Keene then gave them an “IQ test” where he ran a bunch of obscure words by his study subjects, asking if they knew what these words meant. What he didn’t mention was that it was a trick quiz: Half the words were made up. “An IQ test does not measure pride. However, pretending to know items on an IQ test that aren’t real is a measure of pride,” Keenan says. Sure enough, pride prompted the cap-less control group to “know” many of the fabricated words, while those subject to TMS admitted ignorance.

Pride is clearly natural, but it also may be necessary. Keenan has found that people with no pride tend to be clinically depressed. Originally, “I thought people with depression saw themselves as unrealistically bad,” he says. “It turns out that people without depression see themselves as unrealistically good.” Another upside of pride is that it fuels further accomplishments. In a 2008 study, Lisa Williams and David DeSteno of Northeastern University gave subjects a task and told some of them that they’d aced it even if they hadn’t. They then grouped the participants into teams to solve puzzles. Participants who’d been primed to feel pride tended to take charge and handle the puzzle pieces more than those who hadn’t gotten feedback on the earlier task. The results convinced Keenan that pride is an essential evil: “Pride allows us to go out and take risks and do stupid things, and some of those stupid things pay off pretty well.”

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a free issue here!

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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