Researchers at the University of Chicago decided to investigate if animals are capable of emotions and empathy with rats and the results may surprise you!
“Finding helping in rats is exciting because it tells us that this is a biological inheritance,” professor Mason shared with Bored Panda. She also added that it means that we don’t teach helping. “In fact what appears to be the case is that around 4 years of age, kids start to learn who NOT to help,” the scientist shared.
And according to scientific research, rats are capable of empathy — even when it comes to strangers.
The research was spread over a few years and involved multiple experiments all conducted by Professor of Neurobiology Peggy Mason, who, after a 25-year focus on the cellular mechanisms of pain modulation, swapped her focus to the biological basis of empathy and helping.
The initial study started in 2007 and was published in 2011. It focused on whether rats could help each other in distress under different circumstances. Professor Mason shared how it was her colleagues Inbal Ben-ami Bartal’s idea and she was excited to be invited to the project.
Along with Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal and Jean Decety, professor Mason set up an experiment where one rat was trapped in a tube while its cage-mate was released into an “arena” where only the free rat can open the door of the tube.
At first, it was found that in a short amount of time, the free rat attempted to figure out a way to help its cage-mate. And in 12 days of testing, the rat finally figured out how to open the door – releasing his friend within the 3-6 days. After his friend was released they followed each other and jumped up down — almost as if they were elated.
Over the next few days, the free rat, once placed in the “arena” almost immediately releases the trapped cage-mate. The researchers then placed 2 containers in the space, one with the trapped rat and the other with 5 chocolate chips. The team behind the study was astounded when the free rat not only opened both containers in no particular order but also shared the treats with the liberated rat instead of opening the containers with chocolate first and taking the goodies for itself.
The first research concluded that rats who released their trapped cage-mate were on the same level as getting a chocolate treat in the rat’s books. The researchers also argued that it was the trapped rat who inspired said behavior, as the free rat would not open the door if the tube was empty or contained a toy rat. It also would open the door even if it wouldn’t get the chance to be reunited with the trapped rat, as in it did not just want to play with it.
Professor Mason continued her research on rats and empathy and in the following years, revealed a few surprising results. Her study which was conducted in 2014 revealed that rats are “selective” about who they empathize with. And when the rat is introduced to a different, unknown strain of rats, the free rat would not free the trapped rat.
“We call this the switched-at-birth or Mowgli experiment,” professor Mason added. The research came to the conclusion that empathy is based on the rat’s social experiences but is not limited to only the individual rats it knew, as the free rat would help a stranger rat if it was ever exposed to its strain.
In another experiment, the free rats were given anti-anxiety medicine and because of it, they no longer set the trapped rat free. The researchers found that because the rat could no longer feel stress and emotions by empathy, it wouldn’t understand what the trapped rat was feeling and had no urgency to set it free.
You can watch the experiment in action, below: