The Biology of Empathy: Lessons Learned from Lab Rats

I have always been amazed at the different hemispheres of the brain: how the left-brain is more logical and analytical, while the right-brain is more intuitive and thoughtful. Many of my Booth classes, such as Power and Influence, the Study of Behavioral Economics, and Consumer Behavior, have trained me, and encouraged me, to look beyond the superficial into the minds—the biases, tastes, and psyches—of our teammates, managers, clients, and customers.

Lucky for me, the most recent Spark Dinner, “The Biology of Empathy,” fell right into the intersection of my interest in neurobiology and the training from these classes, and provided an amazing new perspective and important takeaways. All based on the empathy of rats.

At the Spark Dinner, hosted by the Harry Davis Center for Leadership, University of Chicago neurobiology professor Peggy Mason shared her research on rats to help understand empathic behavior in times of stress. Professor Mason set out on the goal to understand whether rats would act in the benefit of another—do rats display empathy?

At a high level, the experiment was structured where a restrainer in the middle of an open space held a trapped rat. A second rat (the “helper”) could either do nothing or go in the center to help the trapped rat. Professor Mason explained that entering the center of the space is problematic for rats since they are trained to stay near the protection of edges. In real situations, the open center space is dangerous as it is where they are more likely to get eaten. Would the distress of another rat be enough of a motivation to get the helper rat to enter the “dangerous” center? And, would the rat remain in the center long enough to figure out how to open the restrainer?

As it turns out, yes! Rats recognize the emotions, or affect, of other rats and are able to communicate that. After the helper rat helps release the trapped rat, the helper rat follows the trapped rat around the space in “celebration.” In that display of happiness, the rats show time and again that they would help another. Interestingly, the helper rat is glowing with happiness, but the trapped rat shows no gratitude, nor is happy. Professor Mason explained that, despite the similarities between rats and humans, rats don’t show gratitude.

This led to my first takeaway: do good for the selffulfillment, not for the societal response. Gratitude is an external response, out of our control, and thus, not a good target.

Returning to the experiments, the communication and recognition of affect was crucial: when the rats were given a “chill pill” (valium), they did not display the same behavior. The bystander effect was seen in this experiment as well: when a helper rat and two “chill pill” rats were added to help the trapped rat, because the “chill pill” rats did not react to the trapped rat, the helper rat was less likely to help as well. On the flip side, if more rats without valium were added, the rats were able to help the trapped rat faster.

My second takeaway is tied to the first: be aware of the influence of those around you (the bystander effect). Upon graduation, as we become leaders in our industries, we should make decisions that align with our core values.

A further extension of the experiment was performed with different types of rats. Professor Mason found that if a different type of rat was caged—a black-caped rat, in this case— the helper rat was less likely to help. However, if the helper rat spent even one week with a black-caped rat, the helper rat would be as willing to help any trapped black-caped rat.

My third takeaway: to be effective managers, we need to explore the world and be exposed to new people, new cultures, and new ideas so that we can recognize affect. As much as we try to fight it, we are affected by our community’s perceptions and intentions. The individuals we see around us become our self-image, so surround yourself with people and ideas accordingly.

When the rats had increased levels of corticosteroids—hormones that affect the adrenal cortex, or the part of your brain that’s responsible for empathy—they were unable to help the trapped rat. They cared so much, they weren’t able to be other-oriented and take actions at all.

Thus, my fourth takeaway: we need to be able to control our affect. Professor Mason explained that it is possible for rats (and humans) to get overwhelmed by affect, which causes immobilization and distress. In order to be helpful, we have to be able to keep empathy at bay (emergency room doctors are an extreme example of this in effect).

Humans are economic and political actors, but our shared biology is highly relevant. That’s what Booth alumnus and CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella hits on in his book “Hit Refresh”—to innovate, we need to recognize what other people need from us. If we know the need, we can innovate our way to a product or service that fulfills it

Which leads to my final takeaway: empathy is not just for our personal relationships, it is crucial in the workplace and is necessary for the evolution of business practices.

This is the third post in a fivepart series on the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership at Chicago Booth. Read the previous post from Professor George Wu about why it pays to practice Negotiation. And look out for our next post, where we will talk with Professor Davis himself about the centers goals and what it means to be a leader in business.

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