Testing Empathy While Showing None

An increasing number of scientists have been proposing that empathetic behaviors are not limited to human beings. They argue that animals are aware not only of themselves, but also of the emotional states of their companions. Recent articles have demonstrated how a pig’s emotional state can be affected by the distress or pleasure of a nearby pig (Reimert et al., Physiology & Behavior, 2013) and that rats would work to free a confined companion, even when there was no tangible reward (Bartal, Science, 2011). In these instances, the scientists used mild stressors, such as temporary isolation or confinement, to test their theories. While there is much debate over whether the animals demonstrated actual empathy for their companions (Vasconcelos, Biology Letters, 2012), there is no question that they were exhibiting pro-social behaviors in helping a companion in distress.

Thus, it is perplexing that a group of scientists in Japan decided to use a much more distressing scenario to test for empathy in rats. As described by Sata et al. (Animal Cognition, 2015), two rats were placed in connected boxes. One box was filled with water while the other was dry. To escape, the rat in the water had to rely on a companion’s decision to open a door. In almost every case, the companion rat opened the door and allowed the wet and bedraggled rat to escape the water, even choosing to do so over receiving a food treat. The scientists described this behavior as empathy.

It is unclear why the scientists would choose to create such a highly stressful scenario to prove their point when others were able to address the same scientific question without inflicting nearly so much trauma on the animals. Even more troubling, the research was published in a journal specifically geared toward animal behavior and learning. When a journal publishes the results of an experiment that creates more distress than other published studies with similar goals, it undermines the essence of the 3 R’s, whereby refining procedures can improve the science and decrease distress to the animals.