Opinion

Rats feel regret? Well, I feel ... skeptical.

Rats feel regret? Well, I know regret, Mr. Rat, and you can't come close

Researchers this week revealed that rats feel regret. So, does this mean we’re going to be getting an apology for that whole Black Death deal?

OK, probably not.

University of Minnesota researchers this week published the results of their clever study, in which rats were in effect made to feel like harried Angelenos trying to find a nice place to eat on the Westside — sans reservations — on a Friday night.

Made to wait at various food stations, or “restaurants,” the rat (and here I am taking some liberties with the research, but what the heck, it’s about rats) often squeeked “no thanks” to the rude but invisible maitre d’ and moved on, only to discover that the reason the next food station had a short wait was that the sushi was terrible and the drinks were worse.

The rat then turned and looked back at the previous food station (presumably with a long face, if rats have such a thing), signaling to the researchers that it “regretted” its choice to move on. (In case you were wondering why they didn’t use human test subjects, the researchers apparently had wired the rats’ brains in ways that would be, ahem, uncomfortable and/or just plain bad for people.)

Sadly, the rats were tested individually and not in pairs. I suspect that if a male and female rat had been tested together, we would’ve seen real regret — when the female gave the male that look on discovering that her companion had passed up a good restaurant for a dive. (Perhaps a follow-up study? After all, there are plenty of tax dollars just going to waste.)

Not that I’m saying this test was without merit, mind you, but I had another emotion after reading about it: skepticism.

You see, I know something about regret. Why, just the other day, my lovely wife discovered that Steve Ballmer — he of the $2-billion bid to buy the L.A. Clippers — was at Stanford at the same time she was. And that, in fact, they probably crossed paths. And that, in fact, she was single at the time. Making it possible that she could have been Mrs. L.A. Clippers Owner.

Now that’s regret.

Yes, OK, rats may feel a kind of regret. But sorry, I just don’t buy the “Gee, they’re more human than we realized” angle. I mean, remember the scene in “Titanic” where the rats and the passengers were running down the sinking ship’s halls? I suspect both felt fear, but I doubt any of the furry little long-tailed stowaways were thinking “Rats, I should’ve taken a different ship,” while I’m willing to bet that that thought occurred to quite a few of the humans aboard.

So, sorry, I’m just not ready to raise the rat to near-human emotional levels.

I may well be, as the Smashing Pumpkins sing, “still just a rat in a cage,” but I’m not about to welcome a real one in there with me.

Follow Paul Whitefield on Twitter @PaulWhitefield1

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