Do rodents experience empathy?
Imagine you are a laboratory rat. You live in a cage with your rat roommate. You have little choice and human beings regularly make you do tricks for food.
This was the stage that was set for a study conducted by a research team at the University of Chicago. The researchers were attempting to answer the question: Do rodents experience empathy and engage in pro-social (helping) behaviors? They published their findings in a December, 2011 issue of Science (abstract of the study).
Essentially, the researchers put two rats, let’s call them Ozzie and Harriet, in an arena to let them get acquainted. After a couple of weeks, the researchers locked Ozzie in a clear plastic container that had a switch on the outside of it. Ozzie was stuck and distressed by these circumstances. The switch was inaccessible to Ozzie from the inside of his cage, so he could not set himself free without help from the outside. However, if Harriett found the switch, it would send the door of the container flying open, reuniting the two friends.
The study found that Harriett worked tirelessly to attempt to set Ozzie free. In fact, Harriett worked harder than the researchers expected her to. When Ozzie was in the cage, Harriett worked significantly harder to free him than she did when there were chocolate chips (her favorite food) locked in the container. Harriett also worked harder to free Ozzie than when there was a stuffed rat decoy (how condescending) locked in the cage.
When Harriett eventually freed Ozzie, they celebrated their success heartily, chasing one another around the arena and doing what appeared to be a rat victory dance. After overcoming this adversity, when given the chance, Harriett even shared her chocolate chips with Ozzie after releasing him from captivity.
Empathy and helping relationships
Ozzie and Harriett teach us empathy and helping behaviors are not uniquely human—they are hardwired into our biology. Because the problems, challenges, and opportunities humans face are more complex than Ozzie and Harriett’s, our ability to feel another’s distress, as if it were our own, is even more important for ensuring our individual and collective success. Empathy compels each of us to act with intention to help and liberate the others from suffering.
Helping relationships are those which enable the person being helped to engage in different behaviors and achieve different results. All human relationships have the potential to be helping relationships; however, they are limited by three factors:
- 1) the helper’s skills
- 2) the helper’s desire/motivation
- 3) the recipient’s willingness to be helped
Professional helping relationships such as those between a coach-client, doctor-patient, leader-follower, and consultant-client ensure that the helper (e.g., coach) has the skills for helping and the desire to do so. Like all helping relationships, however, professional helping relationships are limited by the client’s willingness to be helped and to do the work.
Unlike Ozzie, clients and patients have to ask for help and must do the work to free themselves from their confining circumstances. A coach or consultant can help the client discover where the switch for setting themselves free is, and can even help them release the switch, but the client must do the daily work of helping her or himself produce more desirable results.
Work with a partner for transformational change
From time-to-time we all find ourselves in Ozzie’s position, literally trapped by our professional circumstances or our habitual ways of thinking and acting. Some of us may be reluctant to ask for help, others might simply not have a Harriett who reaches out, putting our desire to change ahead of her own.
From my experience as a coach and as a client, this is the value of transformational coaching.
A skilled partner to help you find the switch, which will release you from a constraining situation. Someone who is committed to helping you achieve different, better results. Someone who can empathize with the pain of the challenges and the thrill of the personal breakthroughs that you will experience through the process.
Like Harriett, we have the capacity to help ourselves and to help others. However, many of us act as if we were Ozzie, sitting helpless in our constraining circumstances. This model of personal transformation is ineffective and frustrating to those of us in helping professions because we have helped others achieve better results using proven methods, processes, and techniques.
Act, help, learn, love and liberate
So, as we enter a new year, choose to act with intention. Choose to help yourself become the best you that you can be. Act like Harriett and choose to help others who are just beginning their transformational journey. And choose to learn from others who are farther down the path than you are, and who are willing and able to help you achieve your desired results. Love yourself. Liberate yourself.
Chris Groscurth, PhD is a consultant, coach, and author with expertise in organizational behavior and positive organizational change. He blogs at barenakedcommunication.com.
image courtesy:Gwendolyn Richards