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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
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

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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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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