A new study from the University of Minnesota shows tha rats have the ability to experience regret. Regret is a cognitive behavior once thought to be unique to humans, but neuroscientists A. David Redish, Ph.D and Adam Steiner explained to Science Daily that this isn't actually the case:

"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."

To study regret, the scientists devised the following experiment: 

Redish and Steiner developed a new task that asked rats how long they were willing to wait for certain foods. "It's like waiting in line at a restaurant," said Redish. "If the line is too long at the Chinese food restaurant, then you give up and go to the Indian food restaurant across the street."
Research findings show rats were willing to wait longer for certain flavors, implying they had individual preferences. Because they could measure the rats' individual preferences, Steiner and Redish could measure good deals and bad deals. Sometimes, the rats skipped a good deal and found themselves facing a bad deal.

When the rats faced a bad decision, their brains reacted like a human's: 

"In humans, a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex is active during regret. We found in rats that recognized they had made a mistake, indicators in the orbitofrontal cortex represented the missed opportunity.
Interestingly, the rat's orbitofrontal 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," said Redish.

There's no word on whether rats also feel regret when they eat too much of their favorite food, an emotion I experience every time I choose the Korean taco truck over Chop't. For the sake of rats, I can only hope that particular existential concern is ours alone to bear. 

[via Science Daily and Animal New York]

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