Imagine that you are walking along a lake. Suddenly you notice someone in the water, calling for help. What do you do? The answer may depend on many factors, such as how well you can swim or whether there are other people nearby. You can consciously analyse the situation but feelings are also important. Most people actually feel distressed when seeing others suffering which may push them into action.
And it seems that such empathy with others’ suffering is not restricted to humans, but occurs in many other animals.
Scientists studied empathic behaviour in rats and found that rats saved others from a water bath (not deep but still unpleasant). They did that even if the helped rat would end up in another compartment, without the possibility for social interaction which is rewarding for these animals. The rats helped not only their cage-mates but also strangers and if they experienced the bath themselves earlier, they were more willing to help the other rat.
However, when more effort was needed to help another rat – for example: multiple chain pulls were required to activate the opening mechanism – animals were less willing to help (similarly to humans).
Another experiment showed that one rat can take the time and effort to release another from a very tight and uncomfortable tube, even when it could choose to eat chocolate (which they like a lot) instead. Although in this case rats could interact with each other and eventually share the chocolate.
It seems that the willingness to help other animals, even if it brings no direct reward, or even comes at a cost (less chocolate later), stems from the fact that rats try to reduce their own empathetic discomfort. This is supported by the fact that rats which were given the anxiety-reducing drug midazolam paid no special attention to distressed companions (but they did to chocolate).
Not only rats show empathy, but also for example, dolphins, elephants and monkeys. There are even cases of chimpanzees in zoos drowning while trying to help their children or mates that had fallen into a moat surrounding their enclosure.
So, we know that animals can show empathic behaviour. Will we show empathy towards them?
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