Researchers use rats to provide evidence that biases in the extension of helping behavior is a product of experience—not genetically ingrained.
Imagine that you wake up in a small room with no doors. You quickly realize that there is no way out. Oh, shoot. Further, you see that there is another individual trapped in a small cylindrical Plexiglas container in the middle of this arena, with barely any room to move. You are not sure what the consequences could be if you go investigate—something could hurt you. Someone may grab you and trap you in a claustrophobia-inducing container as well. The first thought that comes to mind may be the Saw movie series, so you would likely be reluctant.
The question is: would you attempt to free this individual in the face of these risks? Under what circumstances do you think you would lend a helping hand? If it were a friend? How about if it were a stranger?
In order to examine helping behaviors, researchers used rats to perform a set of experiments like the situation described above. These experiments showed that rats were equally likely to help a friend as they were to help a stranger in this scenario. However, there was a limitation: all the rats examined in this initial study were of the same Sprague-Dawley rat strain—they were of close genetic similarity and physical likeness, similar to the human concept of race. Throughout this post, I will refer to the rats of the Sprague-Dawley strain as white rats, in reference to this strain’s distinct white fur. In a newer study, researchers examined whether a white rat would help a stranger rat of a different strain (which I will refer to as a black rat). The results were…grim. The white rats were less likely to help free the trapped black rat compared to their own strain.
Does this mean rats are inherently racist (or, strainist)? The researchers did additional work to investigate why these rats helped strangers of their own strain more so than other strains; specifically, to determine if this behavior is genetically ingrained or a result of social experience. The researchers housed the white rats with one single black rat, and then repeated behavioral testing with both this new friend and with new strangers of this black rat strain. Positively, the white rats helped both their black rat friend and the new black rat strangers that they had never encountered before, even though they looked different! The biased helping was due to familiarity; the social experience one white rat had with a single black rat extended their helping behavior not only to this particular black rat, but also to other unfamiliar black rats.
In a final examination, these researchers found that genetics has nothing to do with the development of this helping bias. To test whether this helping behavior has a genetic basis, they raised white rats with only black rats. You could think of this as a similar scenario to a White person being adopted into a Black family, but having never seen another White person in their entire life. Their results showed that the white rats would help black rats (both familiar and unfamiliar), even though white rats themselves were not of this particular strain. Further, the white rats would not help trapped rats of their own strain! The results of this final study showed that the researchers were essentially able to reverse the bias observed in their initial work, just by changing the strain that the white rats were exposed to from birth.
This rat study can provide valuable insight into the development of racial biases in humans. It shows that racial biases may be formed in individuals due to a lack of exposure to other races, rather than being genetically ingrained. We could potentially apply this knowledge to decrease racial disparities that negatively impact marginalized individuals all over the globe, simply by increasing the majority group’s (in an American context, White peoples’) exposure to marginalized racial minority groups from a young age. This notion is backed by research in humans, which has shown that both children and adults’ implicit racial biases may be reduced through mere exposure to positive representations of other-race individuals.
Understanding how social group memberships and resulting implicit biases are formed (and how they may be reduced) has real world implications, as research has shown that implicit biases may drive discriminatory behaviors that lead to poorer outcomes in marginalized groups within a variety of domains, such as healthcare (e.g., clinical outcomes and quality of care), financial security (e.g., job opportunities) and physical safety (e.g., interactions with police). This animal study provides evidence that social helping is plastic, meaning that this behavior can be shaped by the social environment. While humans have more developed areas of the brain compared to rats (e.g., larger size, density, and number of neuronal connections within the cerebral cortex), which promote more advanced cognitive abilities such as language and moral reasoning, this study suggests that alterations to helping behaviors do not require such complex brain functioning: just social experience. So if rats can do it, we can as well…right?
Ben-Ami Bartal, I., Rodgers, D. A., Bernardez Sarria, M. S., Decety, J., & Mason, P. (2014). Pro-social behavior in rats is modulated by social experience. eLife, 3, e01385.
Edited by Ben Greulich and Evan Leake