The Rat Race



In 2011, researchers at the University of Chicago conducted a simple experiment to ascertain whether a rat would release another rat from a cage without being given a reward. The answer was yes. After several sessions, the rats learned intentionally and quickly to open the restrainer and release the caged rats. The rats also repeated the behaviour even when they were denied the reward of reunion. Even more astonishing, when the rats were presented with two cages, one containing a rat, the other chocolate, they chose to open both cages and “typically shared the chocolate”.

For the researchers, the conclusion was inescapable: the rats were displaying empathy. Announcing the results in Science the lead researcher, Peggy Mason, explained: “There is nothing in it except whatever feeling they get from helping another individual.”

This is the opening of an article I was reading recently,(read it HERE if you like) it was about Barack Obama, Republicans, gun control, rich people and poor people. I don’t really want to go into the whole political aspect of it. Everyone to their own. Personally I believe all sides of politics, Left or Right, Independent or Green will screw us all over without the slightest hesitation. But I am a cynic.

But what I found interesting about this is not the experiment but the subjects. Rats. How many times have we heard the term Rat Race or the expression: even if you win the race you are still a rat? Quite a lot I bet. Buy why rats? Is it this perception that they are lowly and dirty, poisonous, dangerous. Even in school (I don’t know about other places but here in Ireland) if someone called you a rat it was the worst insult you could receive, it meant you told on someone to a teacher, you ratted on them.

You squealed was another popular expression in the schoolyard, again it implied the same thing and again conjured up the image of the  rat.  A coward. The lowest of the low.

So the experiment was interesting in that it showed rats in a better light, and yet how strange it is that when rats help each other for little or no reward we call it empathy and when humans do it we call it socialism or communism and it is frowned upon, socialism is one of the worst insults you can throw at a politician in the Western world, it implies weakness.

Funny old world.


  1. J.D.
    I feel it is not helping people that is the problem in this country, so many charities, so much helping hands of help!
    But the way you help people can end up hurting them in the long run. Example…you know the saying…feed a man, you feed him for a day…teach the man how to fish, feed him for a life time. Another example, a child does not get invited to a birthday party, parent calls birthday parents and gets their child invited…immediate pleasures, down the road child hasn’t learned how to handle disappointments.
    Socialism isn’t sustainable…Margaret Thatcher said, “Socialism only works if other people’s money doesn’t run out.” Communism – Don’t get me started down that road.
    I love helping others…I hate enabling the entitled to do nothing!…It takes away their sense of ownership, pride, respect for themselves and for others plus wipes out motivation! If I base my decisions/actions on the consequences I will be needing to be responsible for…why is it cold hearted to think others should?

    1. I didn’t mean to advocate socialism or communism, neither work in my opinion, I was just pointing out that any attempt by any politician, president or government to give anything to the people who hand their money over to said government in taxes is called socialism, which implies you are getting it for nothing, when the truth is you already paid for it.

      A good example of this is what is happening in Ireland: most people during the Celtic Tiger led average lives, they worked, they paid taxes, they were not buying yachts or holiday homes in Spain, they were just getting along.

      Then the banks got reckless, no one was regulating them, so the government didn’t know what if anything was happening until the banks said: we have no more money, give us some?

      Socialism anyone?

      So the government bailed the banks out, the IMF bailed the government out and millions of jobs vanish.

      So there you were working away, paying your taxes, suddenly you are unemployed through no fault of your own and you think: wow, thank God i prepared for a day like this by paying my taxes and having a safety net.

      Or not.

      Because the government are cutting all those entitlements so they can pay back the money they borrowed to save the banks.

      So you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

        1. I have come to believe the people that work get screwed

          Absolutely. Workers get nothing out of the system their money created…while other people spend their whole lives milking it dry.

      1. Don’t know if you wanna get political over this or not…but, to my way of thinking, “center” is now right, ‘liberal” is now center,”socialism” is now liberal.. semantics have changed, just as the meaning of “empathy” has changed as per the article. But the natural tendency, whether you’re a rat or a human, is to help someone or something that is in distress and/or needs help. Everything is F*&%ed right now, because, apparently, only the rats remember this. God knows, the bankers and politicians have forgotten about their fellow “rats” unless the rats can help them out with money or power…geez louise, I don’t want to feel as cynical as this all makes me feel.
        Let’s go back to behaving like the rats, shall we?

  2. Yep, it’s funny the delusions we cherish – both positive and negative- about various members of the animal kingdom. We all admire an eagle, likewise we see Lions as brave and noble, and they should most certainly be protected, but they are of course, like us, stone cold killers who’d happily rip the throat out of a baby elephant for a quick meal. Rats, sharks and vultures we dislike, dolphins we all adore. Dolphins, again like us, are highly complex & contradictory creatures. (a simple by-product of high intelligence perhaps?) There are indeed many examples of brave and altruistic behavior by dolphins, saving drowning sailors and the like. Few people know however that large groups of some young male dolphins go in (like ducks in fact) for what appears to be ritual gang rape of young females. It appears to be a bonding ritual. Not good. Interesting to hear that Rats are intuitively nice. But I suspect we loath them instinctively because they are carriers of disease. I tried to watch that film Ratatouille over xmas, you know the one, about the sensitive young rat who goes to Paris to fulfill his dream of being a top chef. Couldn’t do it in the end. Every time I saw his little feet scamper over a clean counter, I wanted to lay a trap, or put some poison out.

    1. But I suspect we loath them instinctively because they are carriers of disease

      Yeah, it’s like when you are in a doctor’s waiting room and hoping someone does not cough up on you. And everyone tells you not to pick up the magazines in the waiting room.

  3. I love your thinking, J.D. It’s so true. We could learn a thing or two from the rats. It’s all about perception and how things are framed. I think the shallow media has a lot to do with it. And, of course, ignorance.

  4. Hi,
    Just amazing the experiment with the rats. We also have the same sayings here in Oz about the rats, it means the same thing, if you are called a rat you have told on someone.

  5. You made a good point about rats + socialism = empathy. Great blog! The Western (society) world needs to be more empathetic, period, point, blank. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Can’t say that for scientists

      I know, I had one in a cage for weeks and he never shut up moaning and groaning about wanting to get out. Pissed all over the place as well, had to get rid him of in the end.

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