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Social experience drives empathetic, pro-social behavior in rats
Date:1/14/2014

Empathy-driven behavior has been observed in rats who will free trapped companions from restrainers. This behavior also extends toward strangers, but requires prior, positive social interactions with the type (strain) of the unfamiliar individual, report scientists from the University of Chicago, in the open access journal eLife on Jan. 14

The findings suggest that social experiences, not genetics or kin selection, determine whether an individual will help strangers out of empathy. The importance of social experience extends even to rats of the same straina rat fostered and raised with a strain different than itself will not help strangers of its own kind.

"Pro-social behavior appears to be determined only by social experience," said Inbal Bartal, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study "It takes diverse social interactions during development or adulthood to expand helping behavior to more groups of unfamiliar individuals. Even in humans, studies have shown that exposure to diverse environments reduces social bias and increases pro-social behavior."

In 2011, a team led by Bartal and Peggy Mason, PhD, professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago, discovered that rats exhibit empathy-like helping behavior. They found that rats consistently freed companions that were trapped inside clear restrainers, and this behavior was driven by a rat version of empathy.

To determine whether rats would behave similarly toward strangers, the researchers worked with two rat strains, one albino and the other with a black-hooded fur pattern. Free rats, which were always albino, were first tested with trapped albino strangers they had never previously interacted with, even by smell. They encountered a different stranger every day, once per day, for 12 days. Free rats quickly became consistent openers for these albino strangers.

When free albino rats were tested with a black
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Contact: Kevin Jiang
kevin.jiang@uchospitals.edu
773-795-5227
University of Chicago Medical Center
Source:Eurekalert  

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