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May 10, 2013

STAWAR: Creature discomfort


Scientists see some evolutionary advantage to such altruism. Research by Claudia Rutte from the Swiss University of Berne shows that reciprocity in rats is higher for animals who have received help from others. Altruism is sort of an insurance policy for hard times, since you are more likely to be helped by those who have experienced help in the past. 

In 2007, Peggy Mason and researchers from the University of Chicago found that rats will work diligently, without reward, to free a peer from a confined chamber. They would even spring their pal from the tiny slammer if it meant they had to share their favorite treat — chocolate chips.

In 1963, Yale University social psychologist Stanley Milgram published the first report of his famous “obedience to authority” experiments. Milgram was interested in how average people, such as in Nazi Germany, could commit horrible atrocities, later using the excuse “I was only following orders.”

To his dismay, he found that more than 65 percent of the people he tested were willing to inflict severe bodily harm (electric shock) on another human, just because an experimenter in a white coat (an authority) told them they had to obey.

When I read Milgram’s study, I wondered how animals would fare in similar circumstances. I eventually discovered that a psychiatrist, Jules Masserman, and his colleagues at Northwestern conducted an animal study about the same time as Milgram’s experiment. 

Using food as a reward, Masserman found that rhesus monkeys would endure hunger to the extent of starvation rather than obtain food that involved shocking another monkey. Age, size, sex and dominance were irrelevant, but past personal experience of being shocked was associated with displays of greater “kindness’ toward others. 

It’s arguable whether these experiments were truly comparable, but all in all, monkeys came off looking pretty good in comparison to people.

Perhaps the real question isn’t whether animals can grieve or not, but whether people can be kind?

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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