Rats Free Trapped Friends, Hint at Universal Empathy | Wired Science | Wired.com
With a few liberating swipes of their paws, a group of research rats freed trapped labmates and raised anew the possibility that empathy isn’t unique to humans and a few extra-smart animals, but is widespread in the animal world.
Though more studies are needed on the rats’ motivations, it’s at least plausible they demonstrated “empathically motivated pro-social behavior.” People would generally call that helpfulness, or even kindness.
“Rats help other rats in distress. That means it’s a biological inheritance,” said neurobiologist Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago. “That’s the biological program we have.”
In a study published Dec. 7 in Science, Mason and University of Chicago psychologists Jean Decety and Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal describe their rat empathy-testing apparatus: An enclosure into which pairs of rats were placed, with one roaming free and the other restrained inside a plastic tube. It could only be opened from the outside, which is exactly what the free rats did — again and again and again, seemingly in response to their trapped companions’ distress.