Rats as role models?

Worthy of emulation

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.

Resilient, too

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

6 responses

  1. There are so many jokes I could make here that I don’t know where to start.

    What a lesson for us. The rats are better people than many people.

  2. I suspect that other mammals such as humans would respond similarly…although access to an equivalent “food pellet bar” might be a sticking point for workplace bullying targets. I’d love to be part of a “supportive environment” designed to test the theory!

  3. I love this kind of rat research news! THANKS SO MUCH for this blog!

    I have you seen Bruce K. Alexander’s research called “Rat Park”? It is another example of rat behavior that might teach us something very valuable about human experience. I really appreciated Alexander’s book “The Globalization of Addiction” that focuses on the conditions that make people vulnerable to addictive behaviors.

    THANKS AGAIN for the posting!!!

  4. Great post. Made me laugh. Willing to share their stash of chocolate? A true mark of empathy.

    Wonder what a rat’s vacation is like… margaritas pool-side?

  5. David,

    In Chinese astrology I am the sign of the rat. I have greatly appreciated this since college when I saved a rat that I got to know in psychology class. I found him a home with a 5th grade teacher. Then a few years ago I saved another rat that someone had dumped near my home that moved into my wood pile. It was getting cold in Minnesota and he popped up, looked me in the eye and I could see the pleading for help. I took him to Petco, and they found him very adoptable. Humans can always benefit fom the wisdom of animals. I love it that you wrote this!

    Recently the de-listing of the wolf reminded me of the demonization of this creature too. This one has two sides in perception. A magnificant creature or vermin. Often a scapegoat.

  6. I’m glad that the rat piece resonates with people in one way or the other!

    Though I have mixed feelings about how we use animals for research, I think this shows that we humans share a lot of ties with our four-legged cousins.

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