Super-Nice People May Be More Likely to Betray You


When it comes to people, it’s the sickly-sweet ones you have to watch out for. That’s the conclusion of a study by a team of linguists and computer scientists, who analyzed the conversational patterns of people playing an online strategy game. 

As writer Rachel Ehrenberg explains in Science News, interpersonal conflicts like betrayal can be very difficult to study. It’s not as if you can bring two people into the lab, instruct one to backstab the other, and draw reasonable conclusions from their behavior while they’re being watched. “We all know betrayal exists,” computer scientist Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil told Ehrenberg. “But finding relevant data is really hard.”

So when Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil heard about the game Diplomacy, a lightbulb went off in his head. In this strategy game, which was invented during the Cold War, players compete to gain territories not with weapons or armies, but with words. The game has maintained a dedicated fanbase for more than half a century. Today, most games of Diplomacy are played online, with players conducting their negotiations, alliances, treaties, manipulations, coups, and, of course, betrayal from behind their keyboards. 

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil realized that the transcripts of these conversations could be a data goldmine. He joined forces with fellow computer scientist (and diehard Diplomacy fan) Jordan Boyd-Graber, as well as computational linguist Vlad Niculae and data mining expert Srijan Kumar. The researchers compiled 145,000 messages between players and analyzed them in the hopes of finding what they called “linguistic harbingers of betrayal.” 

They found them, all right. “Sudden changes in the balance of certain conversational attributes—such as positive sentiment, politeness, or focus on future planning—signal impending betrayal,” they wrote in a report. In other words, if somebody starts being really, really polite or eager all of a sudden, it might be time to start edging away. 

An example, taken from a game transcript: 

GERMANY: Can I suggest you move your armies east and then I will support you? Then next year you move [there] and dismantle Turkey. I will deal with England and France, you take out Italy. 

AUSTRIA: Sounds like a perfect plan! Happy to follow through. And—thank you Bruder! 

“Immediately after this exchange,” the researchers noted, “Austria invaded German territory.”

It is important to keep in mind this study is only looking at players in a betrayal-centric game. It’s possible that the really super-friendly person in your office is legitimately super-friendly and not out to get you. We’ll have to wait on more research to find out for sure.

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and his colleagues presented their findings last summer at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Computational Linguistics. The acknowledgments section of their report [PDF] was both topical and pointed: “This work is dedicated to all those who betrayed us.”

Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds

Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

Scientists Find a Possible Link Between Beef Jerky and Mania

Scientist have discovered a surprising new factor that may contribute to mania: meat sticks. As NBC News reports, processed meats containing nitrates, like jerky and some cold cuts, may provoke symptoms of mental illness.

For a new study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, scientists surveyed roughly 1100 people with psychiatric disorders who were admitted into the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore between 2007 and 2017. They had initially set out to find whether there was any connection between certain infectious diseases and mania, a common symptom of bipolar disorder that can include racing thoughts, intense euphoria, and irritability.

While questioning participants about their diet, the researchers discovered that a significant number of them had eaten cured meats before their manic episodes. Patients who had recently consumed products like salami, jerky, and dried meat sticks were more likely to be hospitalized for mania than subjects in the control group.

The link can be narrowed down to nitrates, which are preservatives added to many types of cured meats. In a later part of the study, rats that were fed nitrate-free jerky acted less hyperactive than those who were given meat with nitrates.

Numerous studies have been published on the risks of consuming foods pumped full of nitrates: The ingredient can lead to the formation of carcinogens, and it can react in the gut in a way that promotes inflammation. It's possible that inflammation from nitrates can trigger mania in people who are already susceptible to it, but scientists aren't sure how this process might work. More research still needs to be done on the relationship between gut health and mental health before people with psychiatric disorders are told to avoid beef jerky altogether.

[h/t NBC News]