The next time you deal with a less-than-wonderful co-worker, think twice before you call him a “dirty rat.” You see, it turns out that rats can be pretty decent creatures.
Those empathetic rats
David Brown reports for the Washington Post on an experiment by University of Chicago researchers Peggy Mason, Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, and Jean Decety (link here):
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.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve mentioned rats of the four-legged variety. In 2009, I wrote about a study that showed how rats experience, and later recover from, chronic stress:
…the researchers exposed rats to stressful environments, including “moderate electric shocks, being encaged with dominant rats, [and] prolonged dunks in water.” These “chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.”
…Fortunately, once removed from the stressful environment and given a bit of vacation, the rats showed signs of recovery: “But with only four weeks’ vacation in a supportive setting free of bullies and Tasers, the formerly stressed rats looked just like the controls, able to innovate, discriminate and lay off the [food pellet] bar.”
Yes, role models!
Not that I’m eager to have them over to my place, but I guess this shows that rats can be, umm, stand-up animals. After all, empathy and resilience make for a good combo, at work or anywhere else.
Photo credit: Wikipedia