Empathy in Rats

A new study has shown that rats will go out of their way to help another rat in distress even with no reward and even if it’s actually costly to them. 

From LiveScience:

In the new study, laboratory rats repeatedly freed their cage-mates from containers, even though there was no clear reward for doing so. The rodents didn’t bother opening empty containers or those holding stuffed rats.

To the researchers’ surprise, when presented with both a rat-holding container and a one containing chocolate — the rats’ favorite snack — the rodents not only chose to open both containers, but also to share the treats they liberated…

In previous studies, researchers found that rodents show the simplest form of empathy, called emotional contagion — a phenomenon where one individual’s emotions spread to others nearby. For example, a crying baby will trigger the other babies in a room to cry as well. Likewise, rats will become distressed when they see other rats in distress, or they will display pain behavior if they see other rats in pain.

For the new study, Mason and her colleagues wanted to see if rats could go beyond emotional contagion and actively help other rats in distress. To do so, the rats would have to suppress their natural responses to the “emotions” of other rats, the result of emotional contagion. “They have to down-regulate their natural reaction to freeze in fear in order to actively help the other rat,” Mason explained…

“When the free rat opens the door, he knows exactly what he’s doing — he knows that the trapped rat is going to get free,” Mason said. “It’s deliberate, purposeful, helping behavior.”

The researchers then conducted other tests to make sure empathy was the driving force in the rats’ behavior. In one experiment, they rigged the container so that opening the door would release the captive rat into a separate arena. The free rat repeatedly set its cage-mate free, even though there was no reward of social interaction afterwards.

That’s pretty fascinating. I think a lot of things are taken for granted as human-only when in fact the world is much more interesting than that, and this may be just such a case. Of course the more similar we find animals to be to humans, the more strict we may become as a society in their uses in research, so this has extra meta-relevance to science.

Anyway, anthropocentrism is a pretty real impediment to science – part of the controversy over evolution, for example – and I think studies like this, finding “human” traits in other animals, chip a bit off of that block and make us face reality a bit more, which is great. Reality is a pretty good place to live in. 

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