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Excerpt from The Myth of Human Supremacy

Rats Regret (p. 161)

From chapter "Regret"

Rats experience regret when they make a wrong decision.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota noticed this, and so decided to “design an experiment to induce regret in rats and then measure behavioral and neurophysiological markers consistent with regret.” The experiment was in itself benign, so let’s leave aside the ethics of intentionally and systematically attempting to induce regret in another, and leave aside what we would call such a person were he to do so to another human being, especially one whom he was holding captive, over whose life he has complete control. Instead, let’s for now accept this experiment’s unquestioned assumptions.

The researchers differentiated disappointment from regret. Disappointment is a response to things not working out, they said, while “regret is the recognition that you made a mistake and if you had done something differently, things would have gone better.” Keep this definition in mind.

The scientists trained rats to walk along a four-sided path. At each corner a short walkway led to a food station. Each food station had different flavored food, e.g, cherry- or chocolate- or banana-flavored pellets. Different rats, of course, had different food preferences. When a rat would reach a corner, a tone would sound indicating how long the rat might have to wait at that corner before receiving food. Rats would make reasoned decisions as to whether it would be worth their while to wait, for example, twenty seconds for a cherry-flavored pellet, or to move on to the next corner and hope the wait was shorter. The rats were generally willing to wait longer for food they liked more. All of this also, by the way, shows that rats have a sense of time; I know some people believe humans are the only creatures who have internal clocks, but that’s the sort of counterfactual insistence on absolute species uniqueness we’ve come to expect from members of this culture. It’s also important to note that the rats were able to decipher the time value of the different tones established by the humans. I wonder how often humans (including researchers) decipher messages rats establish for them. Or is this the same old human supremacist teleology, where humans are the only ones who create messages with meaning, while nonhumans at best react?

The researchers mixed up the wait times, so the rats wouldn’t know at one corner what the wait would be at the next. They compared this to humans going to restaurants, not knowing until they got there what the wait would be for a table: “You can wait at the Chinese restaurant and eat there, or you can say, ‘Forget it. This wait is too long,’ and go to the Indian restaurant across the street.”

The core of the experiment, according to science writer Mary Bates, was that “researchers wanted to know what would happen when a rat skipped a good deal and then found out the next restaurant was a bad deal. (In one example, a rat that [sic] had an 18-second threshold for both cherry and banana skipped the cherry option when the wait was only 8 seconds. Then it came to the banana option and the wait was 25 seconds.)

“In these situations, the rat stopped and looked back at the previous restaurant it had passed on. ‘It looked like Homer Simpson going, “D’oh!”’ says [researcher] Redish.

“Steiner and Redish compared the behavior of the rats in regret conditions (skipping a good deal only to find themselves with a worse deal) to what they 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). The rats showed three behaviors consistent with regret. First, the rats only looked backwards in the regret conditions, and not in the disappointment conditions. Second, they were more likely to take a bad deal if they had just passed up a good deal. And third, instead of taking their time eating and then grooming themselves afterwards, the rats in the regret conditions wolfed down the food and immediately took off to the next restaurant.”

The scientists also recorded neural activity, and found it was similar to that in humans experiencing regret. Both journalist and scientist were quick, however, to make sure we remember that there remains a chasm between humans and nonhumans: “That doesn’t mean regret is the same in humans and rats; as Redish points out, deliberating over the choice of flavored food pellet is not the same as deliberating over which college to attend, and we don’t see rats doing the latter.”

Of course we don’t see rats doing the latter. Rats aren’t given a choice as to which college they will “attend,” that is, in which cage they will be imprisoned. They aren’t given a choice as to whether the experiments they participate in will be ones where they’re given a choice of different flavored pellets; or ones where they’re intentionally traumatized, made to inhale lavender oil, then pickled alive before having their brains dissected to see if the lavender oil helped reduce their anxiety; or perhaps ones where they’re put into jars of water to see how long they can swim before they give up and drown; or experiments where rats are turned into alcoholics, and then stressed to see if this makes them drink more (and by the way, many studies include scientists addicting rats to various drugs; it ends up, however, that whatever validity these studies may have extends only to imprisoned rats, because wild and free rats aren’t interested in becoming addicted, as they presumably have better things to do; and what does that say about our way of life?); or experiments where they’re given hideous diseases or grievously injured; or the $2.6 million 2009 study at New York University where infant rats were given electric shocks while being overwhelmed with the smell of peppermint (in the hopes that the infants would associate this smell with their mothers, and so perceive their mothers and not the scientists as being their torturers), then after weeks of this and other torment (which included stressing the mother so much that she in turn abused the infants), they were put into pools of water with no way to get out so the researchers could time how long the rats swam before giving up, then pulled out of the water just before death so the scientists could implant electrodes into their brains that released the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, then put back into the water until they once again gave up, after which they were killed and dissected.

Of course rats don’t regret what school they’re killed at, nor do they regret never being able to touch the ground, nor that they’ll never have natural interactions with their friends and relatives. They regret none of that, because they were never given those choices. Human supremacists don’t care about choices made by free rats; we don’t know if under natural conditions rats routinely regret roads (and cheeses) not taken. Their lives were under the complete control of someone else, with their “choice” reduced to which artificially-flavored pellet they may eat as a reward for performing tricks their owners lay out.