Heroes

The science of rat empathy and what it tells us about human kindness

Rats: more human than you think.DISCLOSURE: No rats were hurt in the making of this amazing bit of empathy science. And humans can actually learn from their example.

The science of rat empathy and what it tells us about human kindness

Most people aren't super into rats.

Otherwise known as Tuesday in New York City.


It's hard to blame them. Between the black plague, killing roughly 10 million people in the last century alone, and nearly ruining the careers of underpaid French cooks, rats haven't exactly gone out of their way to endear themselves to humans over the last several thousand years.

Bottom line: Rats don't give a rat's ass about humans.

But as Discovery magazine reported, there is one thing rats do seem to really care about: each other.

Some scientists ran an experiment to demonstrate that. Here's how it worked:

  1. The scientists put a rat in water (which rats hate). Not enough to hurt the rat, but enough to annoy it.
  2. Then they put another rat in a safer, dry area with a door it could open to save the first rat.

To make things more fun, I'm naming these rats Tippy and Tina. Rat images via Thinkstock.

When the dry rat heard the damp, miserable rat get upset, she came to the rescue.

Tippy and Tina weren't alone. Almost all the rats gave a rat's ass about their buddies. Image by Discover Magazine.

You can watch the video of it here:

Still not satisfied with the result, the scientists ran a more complex test.

What if you bribe the dry rat with food? Will she ignore it to rescue the wet rat in the next chamber?

Scientists presumed it would be easier for the not-in-peril rat to take the obvious selfless route when it was given only one choice. But what if they gave her a delicious bribe (chocolate cereal) and then let her choose between saving her friend and a buffet?

Tina can go right and get delicious cereal or she can go left and rescue Tippy.

The rats, by a significant margin, still usually saved their friend before getting their delicious bribe.

What does that mean?

Rats might care more about each other than things like food, and that prioritization might be encoded in their DNA.

Why should we care about super-thoughtful rats?

It is often argued that humans are inherently selfish — that without guidance, we would all default to killing and stealing and an "every person for themselves" mentality. That we only help others if it helps us. That evolution can't make us selfless; it's something we have to force ourselves to do.

But if rats show human-like qualities (they laugh like us, they dream like us, they like to have selfless lovers) like altruism, that means it isn't a human-learned behavior.

It could be encoded in our DNA. It means humans could be empathetic and kind by default.

It also means that rats and humans have more in common than we think.

An adorable rat not spreading the plague and hugging a tiny teddy bear. Much empathy.

Mind. Blown. Adorably.

Albert Einstein

One of the strangest things about being human is that people of lesser intelligence tend to overestimate how smart they are and people who are highly intelligent tend to underestimate how smart they are.

This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect and it’s proven every time you log onto Facebook and see someone from high school who thinks they know more about vaccines than a doctor.

The interesting thing is that even though people are poor judges of their own smarts, we’ve evolved to be pretty good at judging the intelligence of others.

“Such findings imply that, in order to be adaptive, first impressions of personality or social characteristics should be accurate,” a study published in the journal Intelligence says. “There is accumulating evidence that this is indeed the case—at least to some extent—for traits such as intelligence extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, and narcissism, and even for characteristics such as sexual orientation, political ideology, or antigay prejudice.”

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