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.”
Neuroscientists are not the only ones to see empathy – or its absence – everywhere these days. According to Barack Obama, the “empathy deficit” is a more pressing political problem for America than the federal deficit and holds the key to the success of his second term as he seeks to build bridges with Republicans and tackle the wave of horrific shootings that last year disfigured American communities from Colorado to Connecticut. On this side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, George Osborne’s enthusiasm for welfare cuts is explained by the coalition cabinet’s “lack of empathy” for the poor.
But can the solution to violence, cruelty and the divide between liberals and conservatives really be a matter of promoting a trait that we appear to share with rats? And are scientists and politicians talking about the same thing when they invoke empathy in these different experimental and social contexts?