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.”

Shocker: This Electric Eel Delivers More Voltage Than Any Creature on Earth

stacey_newman/iStock via Getty Images
stacey_newman/iStock via Getty Images

Eels are proving to be more slippery than previously believed. A newly identified species of these skinny fish (yes, eels are really fish) delivers more electric voltage than any other creature on the planet.

All species in their taxonomic order (Gymnotiformes) are capable of producing a modest electrical field to help them navigate, a perk that compensates for their poor vision. But electric eels (in the genus Electrophorus) pack a far more potent punch. They bear three organs full of cells that can produce electricity on demand. The cells act as a defense mechanism and can effectively taser prey into submission.

In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers collected more than 100 electric eels in the Amazon region and analyzed their DNA, voltage, and habitat. To their surprise, they found that the single known species of electric eel, Electrophorus electricus, was actually three distinct species. They gave the two new ones the very heavy metal names of E. varii and E. voltai. The latter (named for Alessandro Volta, who invented the electric battery) produced the strongest shock: 860 volts, topping the previous record of 650 volts.

Why the varying strength? The researchers suggested that some eels occupy water with low salt content, and therefore reduced conductivity. A stronger charge may be needed to deliver an effective jolt.

While those numbers sound formidable, their low current means a shock wouldn’t necessarily be harmful to a human. Voltage is the measure of pressure of the flow of electrons; current, or amperage, is the volume of electrons. Eels have high voltage but low current; household power outlets have lower voltage but more current and can be deadly. Eels might startle you with a shock, but it won't be fatal.

If you should find yourself in a school of electric eels bent on subduing you, however, the shocks could result in brief incapacitation that could lead to drowning or an aggravation of an existing heart condition. The study authors hope to eventually film a coordinated eel attack on (non-human) prey.

The discovery of two new species was “quite literally shocking,” lead author Carlos David de Santana told The New York Times.


Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception: in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

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