UChicago researchers find rats demonstrate empathy and helping behavior

Susie Allen, AB’09
Photo Credit: 
Kevin Jiang

Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, AM’09, PhD’12, (Psychology), was the lead author of two studies in which rats learned to use a tricky door mechanism to free a trapped cage mate. The interdisciplinary team also included Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and the College, andPeggy Mason, professor of neurobiology. In the studies, Bartal trapped one rat in a restrainer and observed the reaction of its cage mate. She observed that free rats showed signs of distress at the plight of their companions and worked hard to free them by learning to open the restrainer. 

“We’re raised and educated with this notion that people are born with this animalistic drive for aggression and dominance,” says Bartal, now doing a three-year fellowship at UC Berkeley’s Miller Institute for Basic Research in Science. “There’s something so encouraging in finding out that this kind of empathic behavior and pro-social behavior is not something that goes against nature.”

Why study empathy in rats?

Like all science, it didn’t really end up being what I planned. 

Read full interview here: http://mag.uchicago.edu/science-medicine/spotlight