Rats regret bad decisions, indeed they regret bad restaurant decisions

by on June 9, 2014 at 1:38 pm in Food and Drink, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

Do you ever say “Rats!” after making a mistake?  It now has a whole new meaning:

They [scientists] developed a task called Restaurant Row, in which rats decided how long they were willing to wait for different foods during a 60-minute run.

“It’s like waiting in line at the restaurant,” Prof Redish. “If the line is too long at the Chinese restaurant, then you give up and go to the Indian restaurant across the street.”

The rats waited longer for their preferred flavours, meaning the researchers could determine good and bad food options.

Occasionally the rats decided not to wait for a good option and moved on, only to find themselves facing a bad option – the scientists called this a regret-inducing situation.

In these cases the rats often paused and looked back at the reward they had passed over.

They also made changes in their subsequent decisions, being more likely to wait at the next zone and rushing to eat the reward that followed. The scientists say such behaviour is consistent with the expression of regret.

When experiments were carried out where the rats encountered bad options without making incorrect decisions, such behaviour was not present.

The article is here, the paper is here, all via Michelle Dawson.

fwiw June 9, 2014 at 2:01 pm

…and what, exactly, have we learned from this?

Between this and the ‘OMG chimps know game theory!’ article, I’m less and less convinced that some neuroscientists are capable of doing anything other than giving anthropomorphic names to behavior that would be more or less immediately obvious to anyone who’s actually seen the animal in real life.

jmo June 9, 2014 at 2:47 pm

So, you oppose the scientific method… or what exactly?

fwiw June 9, 2014 at 3:18 pm

No, I’m opposed to research that is (a) of dubious value, and (b) could easily be figured out with a little bit of observation and some inference.

I’m sure some enterprising neuroscientist could figure out a way to prove with the scientific method and some crazy motion tracking technology that moths are attracted to light. He may even figure out the neural circuit that is responsible for it. But who would ever read that paper?

We could borg our way through the universe and learn everything, but the pursuit of knowledge should be accompanied by a purpose for that knowledge, or all we’re doing is collecting cute little curios for never-visited cabinets.

jmo June 9, 2014 at 3:27 pm

No, I’m opposed to research that is (a) of dubious value

How do you know it’s of dubious value?

Occasionally the rats decided not to wait for a good option and moved on, only to find themselves facing a bad option – the scientists called this a regret-inducing situation.

Seems like the cognitive mechanisms at play may be similar to those involved in poor investment decisions.

fwiw June 9, 2014 at 3:50 pm

(1) I know it’s of dubious value because I doubt its value.

(2) Ok I’ll play your game and suppose that this is a world-changing discovery. We’ve found that rats feel regret. Didn’t we already know that we (the people making investment decisions, by the way) feel regret? Let’s even suppose we’ve found the cognitive mechanism that causes the feeling of regret. Were we trying to prevent regret? Is there some badly-sought cure for regret that I’m missing? Regret serves a useful purpose in our lives. It tells us that we’ve made a bad decision, and allows us to learn from it. People make poor investment decisions for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure that their regret of those decisions is something we should be addressing…

jmo June 9, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Were we trying to prevent regret?

No, we’re trying to understand the underlying biological basis for the cognitive processes that result in people making suboptimal decisions.

jmo June 9, 2014 at 4:19 pm

I know it’s of dubious value because I doubt its value.

Wouldn’t “I think” be more accurate than “I know?”

anon June 9, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Perhaps they will measure the cellular and biomolecular basis behind rats’ regret.

Then they can create neuro implants to give to PTSD soldiers who regret killing. Or better yet, pretreat soldiers with these implants to create more efficient and dedicated killing machines.

Slocum June 9, 2014 at 3:23 pm

In some sense you’re right. In order to seem scientific, researchers have avoided anthropomorphism to a fault. Frans de Waal has talked about researchers being perfectly willing to talk about chimps having ‘adversaries’ withing their troops, but not ‘friends’ (too anthropomorphic, not hard-headed enough). On the other hand, how many laypersons have ever seen a rat in a situation where regret is even a possibility, let alone be able to distinguish it from other possible explanations? Or how many would have figured out on their own that rats are willing to expend considerable effort to help a compatriot even where there’s no benefit to them personally:


This is certainly not stuff that ‘everybody already knows’. In general, I’d say we probably should be much more impressed by the intelligence of rats and much less by the computer that recently ‘passed’ the Turing Test. The computer, in that case, had not the tiniest fraction of the sentience exhibited by the rats in these experiments.

fwiw June 9, 2014 at 3:55 pm

If I’m following you, this research is mostly useful for making headlines. I actually think we’re in agreement there.

wiki June 10, 2014 at 2:34 am

You’re still not getting it. Aside from the fact that it’s hardly common knowledge **which** animals are capable of regret, it’s also useful to understand the neurochemical or biological basis of regret because regret leads to many cases of humans making the wrong decision by not ignoring sunk costs. On the other hand, such behavior may be evolutionarily useful in many situations. Or it might have been relevant in the past but less relevant now. I don’t see why this is any less useful than understanding how much of obesity or drug addiction are influenced by genetics and how much can be changed through individual willpower, societal conditioning, or training.

Roy June 9, 2014 at 5:04 pm

There is a real value in confirming people’s casual observations, because some of the time those observations are wrong. In addition many researchers in related fields have also never known a rat or monkey well enough to detect this, I know I haven’t

It may also tell us something about the evolution of intelligence and cociousness. For example: humans, primates, and rodents all have a neocortex, other mammals, not to mention other seemingly intelligent organisms like crows and octopuses, do not. Most of us think dogs can feel regret, but I have wondered and have my doubts, I look forward to future experiments.

Ross Emmett June 9, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Ask your colleague David Levy what he thinks of this …. Rats have preferences, yes. But they don’t trade! Could one of them buy her way to the front of the line?

Norman Pfyster June 9, 2014 at 2:11 pm

“Apes don’t read philosophy.”
“Yes, they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.”

Sir Barken Hyena June 9, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Replacing Homo Economicus with Rattus Economicus might just reduce things to the point where the macro equations are meaningful

So Much for Subtlety June 9, 2014 at 6:26 pm

Regret bad restaurant decisions? Wasting time with ephemera! We want to know if they regret sleeping with fat chicks when they wake up the next morning.

Although perhaps there is a future study in whether this related to their food choices.

anon June 9, 2014 at 6:35 pm

“If the line is too long at the Chinese restaurant, then you give up and go to the Indian restaurant across the street.”

Only of you don’t read Tyler’s dining tips and suggestions.

vetr June 9, 2014 at 11:58 pm

It is not that hard to understand rats, or any other mammal. (The more intelligent birds … parrrots, cockatiels, crows, and lots of others – and a few insects and spiders – family values cockroaches, noble tarantulas, one or two or more moths, and a few other spiders … and some of the larger fishes – particularly the pike and the sturgeon – are honorary mammals, in this context). Adopt one or more that have tragically lost their parents. Raise them. Then you might understand them. Of course, if you are responsible for the loss of their parents, it follows that you have no moral right to understand them, and you will not understand them. (This is where the Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe monkey movie went tragically wrong, in spite of all that Howard H could do). Alternatively, ask yourself – what would you do, and what would you not do, tomorrow, if you woke up as a rat, or one of these other little fellows. Of course you would understand regret, no matter how many IQ points you had lost.

Li Zhi June 10, 2014 at 6:56 am

Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere! I KNEW my neurotic tendencies were deeply based. If you look at this one way, then regret is consistent with the scientific method (continue to challenge beliefs). If this analogy is correct, the real question is at what point(s) in the neural/biochemical complexity hierarchy is regret NOT present. I suspect flies have many of the same flags, otherwise they’d land and stay once they found a tasty treat.

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