Study Suggests Rats Capable Of Feeling Regret Over Poor Choices

John Morgan via flickr

Choosing a restaurant can be somewhat serious business (if you’re anything like me, that is). Many animals can have a favorite food, but what if they choose something that isn’t what they wanted? New research from scientists at the University of Minnesota suggests that rats can actually experience regret after making the “wrong” food choice. The study was conducted by David Redish and Adam Steiner, and the paper was published in Nature Neuroscience.

The study was investigating the cognitive behavior of regret. Prior to this study, regret was believed to be a trait that was uniquely human. As a baseline, they needed to define regret. They relied on previous explanations developed by psychologists and economists to help explain how desire and cost/benefit influence decision-making and regret.

"Regret is the recognition that you made a mistake, that if you had done something else, you would have been better off,” Redish said in a press release. "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.”

The rats in this study were presented with what was called “Restaurant Row,” offering four different food options with variable wait times. As rats can have favorite foods just like humans, they might be willing to wait longer for a better meal. The rats were only given a certain amount of time at each location, meaning they had to make a judgement call about what they wanted versus when they got to eat.

"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.”

The researchers learned the preferred food of each rat and used that information to design the obstacles. Sometimes the rats would skip over their preferred meal and were faced with food choices it did not prefer. By monitoring a region of the brain associated with reward in rats, they were able to gain insight into the rats’ feelings about their present situation of undesirable food choices.

"In humans, a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex is active during regret,” Redish continued. “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.”

The researchers hope that this study will spark future investigations into human behavior, decision-making, and regret. Eventually, they hope to explore how regret influences how future decisions are made.

[Header image “Pippi with Carrot” by John Morgan via flickr, used in accordance with CC BY 2.0]

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