Would you argue that humans are inherently good or bad? Empathic or selfish? Mean or kind?
We seem to have a bad reputation. But without guidance, would all humans steal, lie, kill and only do what is best for ourselves?
In order to settle this debate we could compare ourselves to rats.
Wait, what? Rats? Can we compare our human cognition to that of a rat? We sure can. Rats show many human-like traits. They laugh and even dream like us. And if rats show human-like behaviors like altruism, it could mean that these behaviors aren’t learned behaviors. We could be born this way.
When studying empathy in rats, researchers performed the following test.
Two rats were placed in two little, adjacent, rooms. The floor of one of the rooms was coved in a small layer of water. Nothing life threatening but enough to bug the rat. The two rooms were connected by a little door. The rat in the wet room was not able to open this but by working together the rat could fled to the dry area. And they did. The dry rat would help until the wet rat was ‘rescued’.
To really put them to the test, another room was added, in which a tasty snack was placed. The rats still, by a significant margin, chose to help their friend first before having the snack.
Could this mean that rats have empathic abilities? Yes. And could this mean that this behavior in humans is not a human-learned behavior but rather: encoded in our DNA? Yes.
It could be that we are hard wired for empathy and kindness, rather than selfishness. We may not be so bad after all.