Rats are Cool

For the UAS Whalesong

From a scientific standpoint, behavior can be difficult to classify and record. Naturally, the difficultly level can vary depending on the organism under observation. Behavior can be classified into different categories that are based on who benefits from a particular action. The main groups are altruistic, cooperative, spiteful, and selfish. The main one that this article will focus on is altruistic. Altruism, simply put, are the actions or behavior of an individual that somehow benefit another at some cost to itself. There are many branches and degrees of altruism. More often than not, when you talk about an altruistic behavior it has to do with an individual’s behavior towards another individual or group that is related to itself. However, this is not always the case.

When people think of rats, frequently the immediate reaction is one of disgust or of general dislike. Oftentimes, comments that follow are about how rats have creepy tails and that hamsters are much more appealing. Until a few years ago, I’d never really given rats much thought. I didn’t know anyone who’d had one as a pet and all of my experience with them had been as a one of the animals that we dissected in biology.  However, after having two rats as pets for roughly three years I found them to be extremely fascinating and social animals.

In a study from 2014 researchers from the University of Chicago were looking at empathy and pro-social behavior in rats. They found that rats were willing to free other rats who were confined in a Plexiglas container if they had been housed with the rat beforehand. It was also discovered that rats would not free other rats that were strangers (Bartal et al. 2014). However, if the stranger rats were of the same strain of a rat they had been housed with before, then the rats would free the stranger. From this researchers, were able to determine that social interactions that were positive could prompt rats to free just one very familiar rat to others who shared genes with the familiar rat (Bartal et al. 2014).

Now, it is unclear what the motivators for non-primate mammals are when it comes to this kind of behavior. In humans, it can be classified as an empathic concern for the other individual (Bartal et al. 2011). There were many similarities between Bartal’s two studies, such as the rats choosing to help a trapped rat and then sharing food, and their lack of interest in containers that were empty. However, there a few differences in focus. The 2014 paper looked more at how rats needed to have a prior experience with the rat or strain of rat that needed help whereas the 2011 study seemed to focus more on the learning curve of opening the door and the speed/activity connected with that. However, it should also be noted that there are studies questioning the abilities of laboratories to distinguish between pro-social behavior and actual empathy (Vasconcelos et al.)


Bartal, I. B. A., Rodgers, D. A., Sarria, M. S. B., Decety, J., & Mason, P. (2014). Pro-social behavior in rats is modulated by social experience.

Bartal, I. B. A., Decety, J., & Mason, P. (2011). Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats.

Vasconcelos, M., Hollis, K., Nowbahari, E., & Kacelnik, A. (2012). Pro-sociality without empathy.

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