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Lab Rats Give Lessons in Kindness: Beyond the Reward System

By Paul Wallis     Jul 15, 2007 in Science
If you’re a rat (and who isn’t) kindness begins in the lab. Sometimes with other rats you’ve never even met before. An experiment in Switzerland has the rodents way up there in the generosity department.
The rats were taught how to cooperate, and could only act to assist others. The findings were pretty amazing. The rats learned to give food to others, and they not only got good at it, they were inclined to do it more often after experiencing both giving and receiving.
This has created a concept called "generalized reciprocity", which could be described as “generosity on principle”, having been exposed to generosity from other rats. These weren’t the usual lab rats, either, they were genuine rats, Rattus Norvegicus, the hard case type which shares human cities all over the world.
(The difference between lab rats and normal rats is that lab rats have smaller adrenals, about 75% of the normal rats, which makes them quite a bit less aggressive.)
Even more impressive, the use of a non-reward system is very unusual. It’s an axiom among animal trainers that the reward system will work on any animal, and is guaranteed to get results. This is the virtual antithesis.
The method’s very much to the point in this case, though. The scientists are researching the development of cooperative systems among animals. They caution, sadly enough, against extrapolating their findings to humans.
Wonder why?
More about Lab rats, Cooperative systems, Kindness