Rats Show Empathy

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Does my chinchilla feel sorry for me?

I’ve always believed that non-human mammals have an emotional life that’s rich, complex and surprisingly human. Now it looks like I might be right, at least when it comes to rats. The Washington Post recently reported on a University of Chicago experiment that shows that rats seem to possess empathy, a quality that most people think of as strictly human. From the article:

“In a simple experiment, researchers at the University of Chicago sought to find out whether a rat would release a fellow rat from an unpleasantly restrictive cage if it could. The answer was yes.

The free rat, occasionally hearing distress calls from its compatriot, learned to open the cage and did so with greater efficiency over time. It would release the other animal even if there wasn’t the payoff of a reunion with it. Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive — which is a lot to expect of a rat.

The researchers came to the unavoidable conclusion that what they were seeing was empathy — and apparently selfless behavior driven by that mental state.”

Now that is cool and pretty impressive. Not only did the free rat help the trapped rat out, it even (usually) saved a treat for it. I can think of humans who wouldn’t do that. 

But while the whole experiment itself is cool, it does open the door to some uncomfortable questions about eating mammals and animal testing. Personally, I could happily live a life where no other mammal was even eaten again. And I think most people can agree that cosmetic testing shouldn’t be done on animals. But medical research using animals is a very sensitive and complex area and one I don’t feel like entering today.

I will though ask one question: How come this experiment has never been done before? It seems so obvious and so simple. And animal empathy is hardly an original or even unconventional idea. I’m far more surprised that it took until 2013 to do this experiment than I am at the results.  

But at least it was done and now I can point to it and say, “See, science agrees with me. Mammals can have empathy.” (Okay, rats, but that’s basically what my chinchilla is, right?) 

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