Rats are pretty sneaky. They’re scavengers who are experts at finding that last scrap of food, the hidden morsel of sustenance or the lost crumb. But would your opinion of them change if you knew they feel regret for their decisions? Would you think differently of them? Probably not, but at least we know they may be kicking themselves when they are eating a hole through your Lucky Charm’s cereal box.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently developed a test that measured the choices rats make and how they react to these decisions, and the results were published in the recent edition of the Nature Neuroscience e-journal. Though many of us will not feel a bit of remorse the next time we hear a mouse trap snap, the rat inside it probably felt a millisecond of regret when it realized the nature of its poor decision-making.
Rat Study: Rat Regret
The regret our rodent enemies feel is quite self-centered — as you would expect from a rat. The research team created a task called “Restaurant Row,” and this tested the rats’ abilities to choose between multiple options made available to them. However, each option was only available for a limited time — like the McRib — and waiting too long or too little could result in disappointment. For instance, if the rat chose to eat immediately, there might a more appealing food down the row; if the rat waited too long, it might not get anything at all.
Once the researchers understood the rats’ preferences, then they could determine what would be considered a good or bad deal for the rats. Interestingly enough, when rats chose the “bad deal,” they were noticeably regretful.
“In humans, a part of the brain called the orbito-frontal cortex is active during regret. We found in rats that recognized they had made a mistake, indicators in the orbito-frontal cortex represented the missed opportunity,” said Dr. David Redish, University of Minnesota professor and the study’s senior author. “Interestingly, the rat’s orbito-frontal cortex represented what the rat should have done, not the missed reward. This makes sense because you don’t regret the thing you didn’t get, you regret the thing you didn’t do.”
The results of the study do not guarantee that rats will give up their lives of crime, but it may help scientists come to a clearer understanding of human regret and its relationship to our everyday choices.