Rats, Regret and What Might Have Been (Op-Ed)
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Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). This Op-Ed is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

I'm always on the lookout for what most people would consider improbable results or surprises in the field of cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds). However, if one considers Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity — "If we have or do something, "they" (other animals) do too" — then people shouldn't be all that surprised to discover fascinating aspects of the cognitive and emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals).


Rats recognize what-might-have-been

Last weekend, I learned about a fascinating study that showed that rodents — in this case laboratory rats — show regret. The study was conducted by Adam Steiner and his mentor David Redish at the University of Minnesota and published in the prestigious journal NatureNeuroscience. [Like Humans, Rats Experience Regret, Study Suggests]

Science is not necessarily linear. During the study, the researchers realized that when a rat made a mistake, it stopped and looked backwards.

"Regret is the recognition that you made a mistake and if you had done something differently, things would have gone better," said Redish.

The backward-looking glance was the trigger for the researchers to conduct a series of food-preference experiments using "restaurants," and the results showed the rats regretted what they didn't do. Steiner and Redish compared what rats did under regret conditions ("skipping a good deal only to find themselves with a worse deal") with what the rats did in disappointment conditions ("they made the right choice — taking a good deal or skipping a bad deal — but the next restaurant was a bad deal anyway"). 

Behaving with regret

The researchers discovered three rat behaviors consistent with regret: 

  • Rats only looked backwards under regret conditions, not under disappointment conditions;
  • Rats were more likely to take a bad deal if they had just passed up a good deal;
  • Instead of taking time eating and then grooming themselves afterwards, rats with apparent regret quickly ate their food and immediately proceeded to the next restaurant.

While no one knows exactly what the rats were feeling, the researchers concluded "their behavior and neural activity patterns reflect the subtleties of regret seen in humans ... and [they] certainly show they can recognize the what-might-have-been." [Unpicking the Autism Puzzle by Linking Empathy to Reward (Op-Ed )]

Rats aren't "just rats" — the bigger picture

I hesitated to write about this research project, because it involved invasive research. However, a number of people encouraged me to because it's high time we use what we know on behalf of animals who are used by the millions in invasive research — these results must be used to provide further protection to these clearly thinking, sentient beings. 

Rats are rather amazing rodents. They're smart and sentient beings. In addition to displaying regret they also display empathy. For example, they will free trapped rats from restraint and will help rats in need rather than selfishly eat chocolate.  Rats also like to be tickled and laugh. 

Of course there are numerous sentient individuals, representing a wide variety of different species, who are used in all sorts of human activities. And, thousands of research projects show they, too, are sentient beings who care about what happens to them and to their family and friends. [After 2,500 Studies, It's Time to Declare Animal Sentience Proven (Op-Ed)]

Unfortunately, those responsible for amending animal-welfare legislation for protecting research animals have been incredibly delinquent in incorporating new discoveries in regulations. For example, researchers have known for years that mice and rats display empathy, yet those findings, also published in prestigious professional journals, have not been used on behalf of those rodents. This is inexcusable.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "Why Humanity Must 'Rewild'." This article was primarily adapted from the post "Rats Regret What They Didn't Do: Behavioral Neuroscience "in Psychology Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.