Rats don’t leave their friends to sink or swim
Penny Sarchet, New Scientist, 23 May 2015
Summary and review of the above article
The article discusses studies which seek to know whether empathy can motivate behaviours in non-human mammals. Peggy Mason et al at the University of Chicago showed that rats would free other rats distressed by being held in a restraint. This looked like empathy, but it is possible to argue that the rats really wanted to obtain a playmate rather than relieve another’s distress as such.
Another researcher, Nobuya Sato et al of Kwansei Gakuin University, set out to test whether rats really had empathy. Rats were placed either in a comfortably dry chamber or in a wet chamber where they were soaked by water. The rats in the dry chamber were seen to help the soaked rats to escape. As such, this only brings us the same level of evidence as the Chicago rats. However, in this latter experiment, rats that had themselves been previously soaked in the wet chambers were seen to be quicker to help than those who had not had the unpleasant experience, with the suggestion that this increased their empathy for the distressed rats.
However, there is a possible let out even in this experiment. It is feasible that the previously soaked rats were quicker at helping because they had gained more understanding of how the door mechanism worked. Nobuya Sato’s team hope to test for this possibility.