I am among the psychologists whose education included taking a class in experimental psychology, specifically, animal learning. The basic premise of this class was, after being assigned to a rat, training the rat in all sorts of classical and instrumental conditioning paradigms. (Classical conditioning is when a stimulus is presented to elicit a response. Instrumental conditioning is similar to classical conditioning, however, it involves manipulation of behavior to elicit responses.) In recognition of the fact that many people, even aspiring psychologists, have an aversion to rats, the first assignment involved getting acquainted with the rat upon whose existence our grades depended. As an aside, “rat” conjures many visual images for people; the rats used in my psychology department were hooded rats, each weighing approximately one pound. We were instructed to hold our rat, pet our rat, and let our rat climb on us, including into our hair, all in the name of science. Each student was 100% responsible for the safety and well being of the rat to which he/she was assigned. This meant feeding our rat on a pre-determined schedule, including on weekends and holidays. We were told that, if anything happened to our rat that caused him/her to be unable to pass all of the conditioning trials which were required, we would receive an F in the class. This made sense to me, in that, without our rats, there would be no rats to train. I dutifully trained my rat on all of the conditioning paradigms to which he and I were assigned. The professor cheerfully checked my rat’s and my progress on all of our assignments and, as usual, I earned an A in the class. As a result of my experience with my rat in my animal learning class, I have considerable respect for rats. I do not fear rats; I am not repulsed by them; and I do not believe society would be better off if there were no rats. In contrast, I believe psychology, not to mention the medical field, owes a debt of gratitude to all of the rats who sacrifice their lives in the name of science. Thank you, Dr. Susan Broome, for inspiring this post and for reminding me of an important part of our training, leading us to be who we are today. I truly appreciate rats!
While I’ll agree lab rats, and often other animals, serve a worthwhile purpose, I don’t share Melissa’s fondness for them. I particularly dislike rats and other critters that enter our human world uninvited. Especially the ones that get in the house, seen or unseen, and scurry about. A recent dead rat lodged in the engine of my car really brought this home. But, back to the appreciation part. I was once hired to photograph rats in a psychology lab. The psychologist who was teaching the animal learning had a big set up of cages, plexiglass boxes, and “toys” for the rats (like running wheels) and he wanted to document his lab for research publications. I didn’t make much money on that job, but it was interesting to see the rats doing their things, as they were trained to do. They made decent photo subjects – but I really appreciated the plexiglass separating them from me!