The GRat Escape: Rats In Distress Help Eachother

In this article from Wired, scientists explain how they’ve come to the conclusion that rats experience some level of empathy for the suffering of their kinfolk. I think it’s interesting how they tried various scenarios to make sure the rats actually cared about the other trapped rats by ruling out “random” escapes. From the article:

“Once rats learned to free their trapped and agitated partners, they did so almost immediately in trial after trial. The behavior was clearly deliberate. When the restrainer was empty, rats ignored it. When stuffed rats were restrained, the rats ignored them. “It’s compelling evidence that it’s the distress of the trapped cagemate motivating this helping behavior,” said Mason. “It is a huge leap up to use emotional contagion to actually do something, to actually help another individual.”

To make sure the rats weren’t responding to some immediate social reward — a rat version of a thank-you hug — the researchers tweaked the apparatus so that trapped rats were released into a separate cage. Again, the rats freed each other. When given the opportunity to eat chocolate treats first, rats were as likely to release their companions first, and even shared the chocolate with them.

“Empathy is a truly powerful motivator, on a par with the desire for chocolate!” said de Waal, who was not involved in the new study.

According to de Waal, the results “show for the first time that rodents are not just affected by the emotions of others, but that empathy motivates altruism.” He believes the rats responded to an instinctive urge to make their compatriots feel better, just as humans and chimpanzees and some cetaceans do. “The mechanism must ancient,” said de Waal.

However, the researchers stopped short of ascribing the results to a conclusive display of empathy. It’s possible the rats were less concerned with alleviating the suffering of brethren than soothing their own upset feelings. Perhaps the trapped rats’ distress calls were simply loud and annoying, and the free rats wanted to quiet them. One potentially important experimental condition — the opportunity for free rats to simply leave — wasn’t tested.

“The reservation I have is that it’s very difficult to demonstrate empathy. You have to show that the animal is putting itself in another’s shoes, and I’m not sure that’s demonstrated here,” said Joshua Plotnik, an Emory University psychologist and collaborator with de Waal. But Plotnik still called the observations ‘very exciting.'”

I think the only thing that scientists didn’t rule out here is the idea of survival as a numbers game. We all know that (generally speaking) in a threatening situation your odds of survival increase dramatically with numbers (unless you’re talking food shortages). It’s possible that these rats, in their attempts to escape, understand on an evolutionary level that the MORE of them there are, the more likely they are to succeed.

Either way the results are definitely interesting…

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~ by K. Ritcheson on December 12, 2011.

2 Responses to “The GRat Escape: Rats In Distress Help Eachother”

  1. I agree! I swear my cat knows when I’m in a crappy mood, and she’ll be extra sweet to me when I’m sick. There have also been a lot of cases of dogs saving the lives of their owners, as well as cats, birds, and other critters. As the article points out these stories are anecdotal and don’t meet the standard for scientific research, but it seems clear that human beings aren’t the only critters that “feel.”

  2. It’s an interesting thought it could be for survival or they may simply care. Dogs & cats and other animals have shown compassion for each other no reason why rats can’t when they are extremely smart creatures.

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