Rats Are Probably More Compassionate Than You

You think that dollar you shoved into the Salvation Army kettle was generous? Studies show that lab animals might show more empathy than humans

A recent study at the University of Chicago proved that rats—lowly, disease-carrying, dreaded rats—would turn their back on food in order to free another rat from captivity. As soon as the lab rats learned how to open a lever that would release an enclosed buddy, the majority of them did so. When given the choice of eating a pile of chocolate chips and then freeing the trapped rat, the majority of creatures still chose the prison break route first, sharing the chocolate with the newly released rat. Rats, the researchers concluded, experienced empathy—self-sacrifice, even.

Sort of makes that extra dollar you shoved in the Salvation Army bucket this morning a little less impressive, eh?

Seriously, though, the idea that empathy is inherent in rats does put the human race in rather harsh perspective. I suppose that our human worlds are somewhat more complex and sophisticated, and so we learn to tune out many of our own similar empathetic urges in favor of practicality. (Can I buy a sandwich for every hungry person I see on Market Street on a daily basis? I could, but rarely do: the money it takes, and the time!) It’s easy to wonder if we human beings—so prone to violence, and even more inclined to apathy and inaction—have simply evolved out of what seems to be this basic biological instinct to help one another, in favor of that oh-so-Darwinian pull of self-interest. When this study forced to consider what a pile of chocolate chips actually means to a rat—sustenance, energy, security, deliciousness—and how instinctively the majority of rats gave it up to help another rat, comparisons in behavior were inevitable.  I lost to a lab animal that sometimes eats its babies.

(When I glumly point this fact out to a colleague, he kindly suggests that the first rat probably only let the second rat out so that together they could team up and attack the jerk that put them in the cage to begin with.)

On the flip side, though, it was only because humans have for so long and so consistently made sacrifices small and large for each other that researchers once thought a capacity for compassion was uniquely human. That recent studies—more than just the rat ones—that show just how many mammals show empathy would indicate that such feelings are much more innate and simply connected to being alive than we might guess. Which is good news.

“The bottom line is that helping an individual in distress is part of our biology,” one of the lead researchers was quoted as saying. “It’s not something that develops or doesn’t develop because of culture.” In other words, we may run from our biological desire to be good, but we can’t hide.

Whether or not we humans give into our natural empathetic instinct as predictably and consistently as the rats, though, well … that hasn’t yet been studied.