Rats may not be, well, such rats after all. In the first study of its kind, researchers show that rats engage in empathy-driven behavior, helping to free a trapped cagemate for no reward other than relieving its fellow rat’s distress. Rats chose to help each other out of traps, even when a stash of delicious chocolate chips was on the line.
Although previous research has suggested that empathy isn’t just the province of humans, this is the first study to show such pro-social behavior in rodents. Researchers say the basic understanding of empathy in lower animals could help scientists’ understand it better, and even increase it in people. “It’s a neat new experimental procedure that may facilitate the empirical understanding of empathy,” says Jaak Panksepp, a pioneer in the study of emotions in animals, who wrote a commentary that appeared alongside the new research in the journal Science.
By MAIA SZALAVITZ