January 2, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

Better off alone: rats may be social animals but new research suggests they cope with helplessness better if they experience the situation without a buddy.Feeling helpless? Then perhaps it’s better to be alone. New research from the University of Haifa has found that laboratory rats exposed to uncontrollable conditions which create a feeling of helplessness, learned how to avoid these situations better if they were alone when they experienced it, than if they were in pairs.

Rats are social animals whose brains work in much the same way as the human brain. In the past, studies have found that rats exposed to a situation in which they are helpless and have no control – for example random electric shocks – have a more difficult time learning how to avoid these situations in the future than rats that were never exposed to this experience of helplessness – a phenomenon called ‘learned helplessness’.

Most previous research was conducted on rats when they are alone, and with this in mind, Haifa University’s Dr. Qutaiba Agbaria, led by Dr. Richard Shuster from the Department of Psychology decided to experiment to see if rats experiencing these situations of helplessness as a pair would cope better than rats experiencing it alone.

His hypothesis was that rats in a social situation would learn to be more adaptable than lone rats experiencing these situations alone. In fact he found the opposite was true.

In his doctoral dissertation, Agbaria, an Israeli Arab, examined the differences in learned helplessness among rats exposed to uncontrollable conditions alone and in pairs. He discovered that rats exposed to uncontrollable conditions in pairs coped less well when they were no longer in an uncontrollable situation than rats exposed to these situations alone.

In the next phase of his research, Agbaria examined the influence of a rat that had never been exposed to an uncontrollable situation on a rat that had. These pairs of rats showed greater adaptability than pairs that had been exposed to helplessness as individuals or in pairs.

In addition, the researchers did not find outstanding differences between the learning ability of these pairs of rats – where one had been exposed to uncontrollable conditions and the other hadn’t – and pairs that were never exposed to uncontrollable conditions, which means that the effect of “learned helplessness” is effectively erased.

“Now that we have see that “learned helplessness” can be “unlearned”, we should continue to examine whether this change is a result of exposure to a rat that was not exposed to helplessness or rather that the social behavior between the two animals has another meaning,” said Dr. Agbaria.


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