Warning: this story may tug at your heartstrings… and possibly have you craving chocolate. Offering proof to the theory that scientists are frustrated Bond villains, researchers decided to test rats for empathy by letting the rodents choose between saving their drowning pals and eating a piece of chocolate. In a particularly cruel variant of another rodent-empathy experiment, two rats were separated by a clear plastic partition: one rat had a dry platform to sit on, the other was forced to swim in a tank of water (rats don’t like swimming, apparently, which explains why they flee sinking ships, I suppose.) Because there was a door in the partition, the rat on the one side could open it and save his drowning friend on the other. The researchers “found that rats quickly learned that to help their distressed and soaked fellow rat, they had to open the door. The rats were, however, only quick to open the door when there was actually a truly distressed cagemate nearby who needed to be saved. The experiments also showed that rats dislike being soaked. Those who had a previous experience of being immersed in water were also much quicker at learning how to save a cagemate than those who had not been immersed,” reports Eurekalert.
But what about when there was a piece of chocolate to tempt the lifeguard rat instead of saving his drowning pal? In nine out of ten cases, the rats chose to save their friends first, leading the researchers to believe that even for rats “the relative value of helping others is greater than the benefit of a food reward” and that “rats can behave prosocially and that helper rats may be motivated by empathy-like feelings.” I’m not so sure. Do the results mean that 90% of rats have empathy or is it simply the case that nine out of ten rats really didn’t like the tenth rat? I mean, after all, it was Gary; he was always so annoying. And that chocolate was so good.