In the aftermath of nearly any disaster, it’s common to read about people uniting, pulling together and looking out for each other. Often, these responses are tied to specific groups (Americans pull together, neighbors pull together, the city pulls together). When this language becomes excessive, and the worst the disaster is the more excessive it usually becomes, there’s a sense that “pulling together” is some singularly human quality.

But not so fast, says science. We’re not the only creatures who unite under adversity. In fact, even the lowly, much maligned rat possesses the quality of pulling together and looking beyond its own needs. And the research on this is long, solid, and at least for me, pretty startling. Here are two examples, set 40 years apart:

A group of rats were placed in a cage in which there were two available containers for pellets. The lever on one container was very easy to press and the lever on the other very difficult to press. The rats quickly learned to ignore the difficult container and use the easy one to get their food.

The researchers then added another layer to the situation by placing a second cage of rats near to the first. Whenever the rats in the first cage pressed the easy lever for their food, the rats in the second cage got an electric shock.

So what happened? After becoming aware that their actions were causing the rats in the second cage suffering, the rats in the first cage worked together in twos and threes to lower the lever on the difficult container so their fellow rats would not receive the shocks.

The above research is from 1967. More recently, in the December 9, 2011 edition of the prestigious journal, Science, a team of University of Chicago researchers found that rats would choose to free trapped rats rather than eat chocolate.

“We were shocked,” said one of the researchers, Peggy Mason. “It said to us that essentially helping their cagemate is on a par with chocolate. He can hog the entire chocolate stash if he wanted to, and he does not. 

Interestingly, both females and males exhibited the freeing behavior – but with a difference. “The females, once they open the door, they open the door every day, and within a few minutes,” Dr. Mason said. “But the male rats would occasionally take off a day.”

Science is subscription-based, but you can view the abstract of the study here: