Rats Are More Empathetic Than You

If your friend was locked in a room that could only be opened from the outside and the lock was a Rubik’s cube, would you sit there and try to figure it out to free your friend? What if it took days? What if it wasn’t your friend, but a total stranger? What if there was another room with a bunch of chocolate, also locked with a Rubik’s cube? Would you free your friend and then get in on the chocolate or have some chocolate and then free your friend? Would you even bother with the stranger if there was a room full of chocolate?

If you were a rat you’d free your friend. And the stranger. And the chocolate. And you’d even save some of the chocolate for your friend. A three-year study on empathy in animals showed rats have higher levels of emotion (including empathy) than we thought. The study means that empathy and helping, or pro-social, behaviors are no longer human-only, or even primate-only. This will help researchers trace back when emotion evolved in mammals and help us better understand our own emotions as people. The study involved pairing rats together for a few weeks and then placing one of them in a rat-proof plastic cage while allowing the other to roam around freely within the larger enclosure. The trapped rat would communicate distress to the free rat, and the free rat would try to get in and help his friend. After a few days of trying, the free rat would accidentally unlock the cage which freed his friend, and then do what researchers said “sure looks like a celebration.” After that, the free rat learned to quickly undo the lock to free the trapped rat. Researchers changed things up by putting a stranger rat in the cage, but the results were the same. Then they changed it more by adding a distraction: chocolate chips, which rats love. The rats would open both cages, and when they opened the chocolate cage first they’d be sure to leave a couple of chocolate chips for the other rat to have. The free rats didn’t get greedy and eat all the chocolate chips before helping the trapped rats, showing it “puts equal value on chocolate and on freeing its partner.”

And what’s all over the news in the human world? Greed, corruption and self interest. Guess this means we’re no longer able to hold our species up as a shining example of morality or kindness. It’s time to learn from the rats.

Testing animal emotion or interpreting animal behaviors is a difficult thing for science. Anthropomorphism is a big ol’ no-no in the science community (that means no attributing human thoughts and emotions to animal behaviors), but I think there’s a fine line. I’ll agree that animals are mostly exhibiting behaviors as a direct consequence to something else (your cat isn’t destroying the last roll of toilet paper because she knows it’s your last roll of toilet paper, she’s just alone and bored and looking for something to do), but to say that animals are incapable of experiencing other emotions we experience is a little pretentious. We honestly have no way of knowing what animals are feeling and can only guess based on observations. Animals clearly act scared, defensive, happy and worried, so we attribute those emotions to them. But when they exhibit love we call it respect or deference and when they exhibit celebratory behaviors we call it instinct. We still don’t fully understand how animals communicate, so how can we know what emotions they feel?

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