Study reveals rats show regret, a cognitive behavior once thought to be uniquely human

EurekAlert!: New research from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota reveals that rats show regret, a cognitive behavior once thought to be uniquely and fundamentally human.

Research findings were recently published in Nature Neuroscience.

To measure the cognitive behavior of regret, A. David Redish, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience in the University of Minnesota Department of Neuroscience, and Adam Steiner, a graduate student in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, who led the study, started from the definitions of regret that economists and psychologists have identified in the past.

“Regret is the recognition that you made a mistake, that if you had done something else, you would have been better off,” said Redish. “The difficult part of this study was separating regret from disappointment, which is when things aren’t as good as you would have hoped. The key to distinguishing between the two was letting the rats choose what to do.” [Continue reading…]

The boundaries delineating what is taken to be uniquely human are constantly being challenged by new scientific findings. But it’s worth asking why those boundaries were there in the first place.

Surely the scientific approach when investigating a cognitive state such as regret would be to start out without making any suppositions about what non-humans do or don’t experience.

The idea that there is something uniquely human about regret, seems like a vestige of biblically inspired notions of human uniqueness.

That as humans we might be unaware of the regrets of rats says much less about what rats are capable of experiencing than it says about our capacity to imagine non-human experience.

Yet at least rationally, it seems no great leap is required in assuming that any creature that makes choices will also experience something resembling regret.

A cat learning to hunt, surely feels something when it makes a premature strike, having yet to master the right balance between stalking and attacking its prey. That feeling is most likely some form of discomfort that spurs learning. The cat has no names for its feelings yet feels them nonetheless.

That animals lack some of the means through which humans convey their own feelings says much more about our powers of description than their capacity to feel.

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