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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Question of the week:

How can we benefit from studies on social behaviour in rats?

rmjllil27 May 2015

A Japanese study on rats and their social behaviour published a couple of weeks ago has received attention worldwide. A visitor at Grant museum asked me as a researcher what this study wanted to find out and how we could benefit from such knowledge. Before trying to answer that question I’ll briefly explain what the researchers did.

In the experiment one rat was put in a pool of water where it had to swim for its life and another rat was put in a cage adjacent to it. The soaked rat could only escape the pool and access a dry area in the cage if the other rat opened a gate for it. The experiment shows that rats quickly opened the gate when their fellow rat was in the water but did not bother to open it if there was no water and hence no danger to the fellow rat. The researchers then provided a piece of food in a third cage behind a different gate to see what happened when rats had to choose between opening the gate to help their distressed mate or accessing a different gate to obtain food for themselves. In most cases, rats chose to help their mates before going for the food.

From this study we have learnt that rats can behave in a way that benefits others and they want to help others even if they don’t gain any advantage from it. By saving their mate before going for food it was shown that helping others in danger has a higher value than obtaining a food reward. Based on this experiment it was also found that rats may be motivated to save a mate because of empathy-like feelings. Such findings are important to us because it helps us understand what prompt us helping others. This study also showed that empathy and willingness of helping others seems to be something in our biology. Hence, empathy-like reactions may not happen because you’ve been taught to help others but could be something in our genes independent of culture and upbringing. These findings make this study very interesting and important in order to learn more about ourselves and understand our own behaviour.

Reference: Sato, N. et al. (2015). Rats demonstrate helping behaviour towards a soaked conspecific. Animal Cognition. DOI 10.1007/s10071-015-0872-2