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.

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.

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Courtesy of Macy's

In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

Courtesy of Macy's

Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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