Study reveals rats show regret, a cognitive behavior once thought to be uniquely human

June 8, 2014
Hucky rat. Credit: AlexK100/Wikipedia.

New research from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota reveals that rats show regret, a cognitive behavior once thought to be uniquely and fundamentally human.

Research findings were recently published in Nature Neuroscience.

To measure the of regret, A. David Redish, Ph.D., a professor of in the University of Minnesota Department of Neuroscience, and Adam Steiner, a graduate student in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, who led the study, started from the definitions of regret that economists and psychologists have identified in the past.

"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."

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."

In this task, which they named "Restaurant Row," the rat is presented with a series of food options but has limited time at each "restaurant."

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.

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

Redish adds that results from Restaurant Row allow neuroscientists to ask additional questions to better understand why humans do things the way they do. By building upon this animal model of regret, Redish believes future research could help us understand how affects the decisions we make.

Explore further: Lack of relationships, education top list of common American regrets

More information: Behavioral and neurophysiological correlates of regret in rat decision-making on a neuroeconomic task, Nature Neuroscience,

Related Stories

Learning early in life may help keep brain cells alive

May 27, 2014

According to a recently published study in Frontiers in Neuroscience, Rutgers behavioral and systems neuroscientist Tracey Shors, who co-authored the study, found that the newborn brain cells in young rats that were successful ...

Recommended for you

New insights on how cocaine changes the brain

November 25, 2015

The burst of energy and hyperactivity that comes with a cocaine high is a rather accurate reflection of what's going on in the brain of its users, finds a study published November 25 in Cell Reports. Through experiments conducted ...

Can physical exercise enhance long-term memory?

November 25, 2015

Exercise can enhance the development of new brain cells in the adult brain, a process called adult neurogenesis. These newborn brain cells play an important role in learning and memory. A new study has determined that mice ...

Umbilical cells help eye's neurons connect

November 24, 2015

Cells isolated from human umbilical cord tissue have been shown to produce molecules that help retinal neurons from the eyes of rats grow, connect and survive, according to Duke University researchers working with Janssen ...

Brain connections predict how well you can pay attention

November 24, 2015

During a 1959 television appearance, Jack Kerouac was asked how long it took him to write his novel On The Road. His response – three weeks – amazed the interviewer and ignited an enduring myth that the book was composed ...

No cable spaghetti in the brain

November 24, 2015

Our brain is a mysterious machine. Billions of nerve cells are connected such that they store information as efficiently as books are stored in a well-organized library. To this date, many details remain unclear, for instance ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Diogenes Tha Dogg
2 / 5 (2) Jun 09, 2014
Has it been demonstrated that rats feel pain of loss (death/separation)?
1 / 5 (2) Jun 10, 2014
Amazing saying the same thing about whales, dogs Etc., and you'll get a legion of people slamming such statements as anthropomorphizing.

Even worse was the recent article about fruit flies making choices like humans do.

It seems the more insignificant the creature the more willing science is to tolerate describing abilities as similar to humans.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.