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Why Do We Lie?

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By Chris Gayomali

The answer to the question "Why do we lie?" seems fairly obvious: The truth is messy, inconvenient, and a time-consuming pain to untangle. Hence, the existence of little white lies: "I'm on my way!" when really you're still brushing your teeth.

It turns out that there's scientific evidence to back that theory. A new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B looks at the phenomenon of lying through an evolutionary lens, and the research suggests that lying has helped grease the wheels of human interactions for ages.

"Tactical deception," claim the study's authors, "[or] the misrepresentation of the state of the world to another individual, may allow cheaters to exploit conditional cooperation."

Cooperation, after all, is one of those feel-good characteristics that truly defines us. It might even explain why so few of us are left-handed. Working together lets humble humans accomplish great things, from building skyscrapers to mapping the neural circuitry of the human brain.

"We might take cooperation as an obvious facet of life, but long-term cooperative gain requires a willingness to put aside narrow self-interest in the short term," writes Rob Brooks at PhysOrg. "And that doesn't evolve easily."

In most societies—including those of ants, bees, dolphins, and apes—cooperative behavior is rewarded. (You get to eat, yay!) On the other hand, individuals caught deviating from the group to pursue their own interests are punished. Nature has all sorts of mechanisms to make sure everyone falls into line.

That's why lying as an act of self-preservation may be important to sustaining a complex, nuanced society built on relationships. More specifically, co-authors Luke McNally and Andrew L. Jackson of Trinity College in Dublin found that lying was a tactic employed by apes and monkeys whenever a high level of cooperative behavior was necessary. As this chart demonstrates, the two are correlated—the more cooperative a group of primates are, the higher the likelihood a lie will be told:

As the Daily Mail has it, mischaracterizing the truth allows individuals to "form coalitions, get food, and mate." It happens in nature all the time. Deception "occurs in some spiders where males give worthless nuptial gifts to potential mates," McNally tells the Daily Mail. "It can occur in bacteria where they over-produce signals to elicit co-operation from others."

Think of how we use tiny lies every day to our advantage. We use untruthful language to flatter, gain the trust of comrades, and make ourselves more attractive to prospective bosses, not to mention potential mates. (For your consideration: Dating profiles.) More often than not, we lie to find others to align ourselves with.

"Ultimately," write the study's authors, "this most Machiavellian element of human behavior may be the product of one of our most beneficent characteristics—our tendency to seek mutually cooperative relationships."

(Via Phys.orgProceedings of the Royal Society B)

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Big Questions
What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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