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Are Rats Better at Empathy Than Leaders?

by Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D.

Are rats more empathetic than leaders?I recently reconnected with a professor I had during my tenure as a Ph.D. student at American University. It had been close to 35 years since we had last seen each other. His research was (and still is) in the field of animal learning, which, over the decades has helped us better understand human behavior.

During dinner I asked him to fill me in on his current research interests. As it turns out, he had received a series of grants to do research around the area of empathy.

I must admit I was more than a little surprised, as empathy has been an area of interest for me for some time now. Of course, my work has focused on the relationship between empathy and better leadership. I had no idea how one would even approach this topic, as he did, with a pack of rats.

What about human empathy?

But before we get to rats, let’s talk about humans. DDI has published research and an article affirming that leaders who can empathize, have more engaged teams and better business outcomes. Additional research shows that empathy is the foundation of tomorrow’s digital economy and will, thankfully, separate us humans from droids and robots.

A recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, “The Future Belongs to Those with ‘Soft Skills,’” reinforced the importance of “emotional-social” intelligence in the 21st century workplace.

At the same time, however, we know that empathy is on the decline. One study from a few years ago shows a decrease in empathy in college students, while our own DDI assessment research reveals that leaders do not score very high on social skills, including empathy. But there is good news: Empathy can be learned.

How do we know rats are empathetic?

Now, back to rats. As it turns out, dozens of animal research studies have tried to answer the question: Are rats naturally empathetic? It’s still a point of debate but it does appear that these little whiskered rodents do care about their mates.

The basic paradigm for my professor’s research is simple. Two rats are placed in a cage. One is designated as a free rat, the second a trapped rat. A barrier separates the two rats.

The trapped rat will experience some sort of low-level stress, such as a mild shock, being doused with water, or being placed in a cramped tube. Fairly quickly, the free rat self-learns to press a lever that allows the trapped rat to escape. Home free.

There have been interesting twists on this experiment, as well. In one study, the free rat was allowed to choose between helping the trapped rat or pressing another lever for food, which included tasty morsels of chocolate. Believe it or not, the free rat chose the helping behavior over the food. In fact, the free rat shared the food with the trapped rat! Rats, it turns out, can be generous little creatures.

My former professor has some strong opinions about rat empathy. He believes their behavior is motivated by pro-social behavior, i.e., the need for rats to be together, and not empathy, as we humans know and define it. And, in his relatively complex experimental design, he partially proved his hypotheses.

I have many other questions for future research, many of which are being addressed: Can empathy be instilled in the small percentage of rats who do not engage in rescue behavior? At what point do rescue rats tire of their altruistic behavior? Is there a limit to rat kindness? Would a rat rescue a pigeon or primate? Will a previously distressed rat be more empathetic than one who was never placed in a stressful situation? Will rats of the same strain be more likely rescue each other than rescue rates from other strains? The quantity of these questions seems almost as plentiful as, well, rats.

What this collective research shows is that, for whatever reason, rats do seem to “care” about one another.

So, remember, if you encounter a rat, think twice before you start screaming or immediately calling an exterminator. The little guy may be on his way to help a friend!

Learn how DDI can help you transform your leaders to transform your business.

Rich Wellins, Ph.D. is a senior research associate for DDI and a co-author of the Global Leadership Forecast 2018.

Posted: 21 Mar, 2018,
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