Rats Respond To Kindness July 8, 2007Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Evolution, Psychology and Behavior, Think About It.
Rats can teach us really interesting things. Seriously! In a new study, it was found that rats responded to kindness from other rats. How did they respond? By also being kind! There’s a specific word for this kind of giving and it’s known as altruism.
Altruism is a word used to describe the giving of oneself to others, generally without any benefit to the giver and even if the giver experiences pain or loss in the process. The giving can take many different forms. Offering your time to volunteer, for example, might be considered altruistic. Helping your struggling neighbor mow his lawn for free is another example of what could be considered altruistic behavior. Risking your life to save someone else’s life is yet another example of what may be called altruism.
Two researchers from the University of Berne in Switzerland-Claudia Rutte and Michael Taborsky-trained rats to pull a lever, which then released food to a rat in another cage. The rats who received food that was released by other rats were more likely to pull a lever in their cage, allowing another rat to receive food. This kind of cooperation and response is called reciprocal altruism. The reciprocal part basically just refers to a rat responding to the kindness by giving in return. It’s a ‘tit for tat’ philosophy.
The rat who pulls the lever receives nothing in return but still pulls the lever to provide food for a rat in a different cage. This kind of cooperation means that rats are more likely to stick together in a group.
What Does This Have To Do With Humans?
Lots! One thing scientists like to investigate is whether altruistic behavior in humans is something we’re born with or if it’s something we uniquely learn from our environment and social interactions. When we see other animals showing the same kinds of altruistic reciprocity, it tells us that it’s possibly due to evolution because the other animals obviously have a very different social and cultural environment than us humans do! These sorts of behavioral links from one species to another suggest some sort of evolutionary mechanism at work.
Whether it’s genetic behavior or not, I kinda like the idea of a world where helping people encourages them to help others. In theory, it means that each time you do something nice for someone, that person then does something nice for another person and so forth. Better still, kindness just makes the day a little-or a lot-less stressful and more enjoyable.