We help because it feels good

A gopher tortoise from Florida.

A Florida gopher tortoise, right side up and alone.

A friend sent me a link to this video in which one tortoise rights another tortoise that is on its back. Watching this video, I sensed that the helping tortoise really wanted to help the upside down tortoise. I was rooting for the helping tortoise to succeed and wholly relieved when s/he successfully rolled the other tortoise onto its feet.

I say “s/he” because tortoise sex is not discernible from external features, at least not by me. To avoid the clunkiness of continually writing “his or her,” I fall back on the somewhat distasteful practice of referring to the tortoises as “it”s. I say this is distasteful because the practice supports the objectification (it-ification, if you will) of non-human animals, a philosophy that I do not in any way subscribe to.

Upon the tortoise’s return to its feet, I cheered along with the human audience recorded in the video background. What struck me most about this video is how completely nonchalant the recipient of help, upon being returned to an upright position, appeared to feel toward the helper. Not so much as a tip-of-the-hat or backward glance. The righted tortoise bolted away, adding distance between itself and its rescuer as fast as its short tortoise legs would allow.

This pattern of a recipient of help paying a helper absolutely no attention is familiar to me because this is exactly how “our” rats act. In my laboratory, we have developed the helping behavior test in which one rat can release another rat from being trapped inside a plexiglas tube (termed a restrainer).

When I say that we have developed the helping behavior test, I speak of many, many individuals, most notable of whom is Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal who is currently a Miller Fellow at University of California-Berkeley.

As you can see in this video (check out 1:55-2:15 in particular), the liberated rat (the recipient of help) runs around exploring the experimental arena. The helper rat follows the liberated rat. The pattern of helpers following recipients is highly consistent. Just as consistent is the observation that recipients of help do not seek out, turn toward, or in any way acknowledge the helper. Any “thank-yous” in rat land? Not that I can detect.

My perception is that actions that could be construed as the behavioral analog to humans saying “Thanks” don’t happen in rats and tortoises. I also don’t see evidence that my three extremely spoiled cats ever act out thanks to the humans who are at their beck and call. The cats are happy to be fed and to be let out to play, to enjoy immobilizing their humans for hours on end in order that they may sleep comfortably, and so on, but do they think to express thank-you? I don’t think so. Even young humans are not particularly apt at the act of thanking. I am reminded of a dinner that I had with very young nieces and nephews. In the space of that single meal, the children went from never saying “thank you” to saying “thank you” at every passed dish and similarly appropriate moment.

Saying “thank you” is clearly a learned behavior. Initially “thank you” is said entirely by rote in the interest of gaining food or praise or some other benefit. But eventually, the vast majority of us develops a feeling of gratitude that drives us to say “thank you.” In adult humans, gratitude is a powerful driving force. Not thanking someone who hands you something or does you a good turn is incredibly uncomfortable-making. Even when the good turn is more abstract and occurs over a prolonged time period, thanks are common. For example, in my role as a teacher and mentor, I receive many proverbial “apples for the teacher,” thank-yous that take all manner of forms.

The power of gratitude was dramatically demonstrated by an experiment performed by the American sociologist Phillip Kunz. Professor Kunz sent Christmas cards out to 600 names picked randomly from a phone book (for the under-30 crowd out there, phone books are paperbacks filled with the land-line phone numbers of people in a geographical area, listed alphabetically by last name). He received more than 200 return cards in that first year and continued to receive cards for 15 years. Thus a completely unexpected good turn from an unknown source fuels the drive to say thanks through reciprocation. The drive to reciprocate is so powerful that when charities accompany solicitations for donations with small (one could even say minuscule) gifts – address labels, cards, maps – they enjoy double the return rate than when donations are solicited without gifts.

Let’s return to rats and tortoises (and young children) where gratitude is not a driving force for helping. Why do they help? I would advance that the motivation stems from that old adage, “to give is to get.” In other words, helping feels good and makes the helper want to help again. Indeed, in the helping behavior test, rats that open the door once almost invariably open it again at the next opportunity. Motivating helping by the feeling engendered in the helper rat without necessitating that the recipient experience any specific emotion would appear to be a more reliable basis for the all important social glue of helping each other.


  1. Thank you Peggy!!
    For sharing your take on the Turtle story which I saw last week in the news. Thank you also for passing on the phone book story. I am so happy to have that (and your observations) to share at one or more family dinners with my 20 somethings young adult children! To be able to be grateful is a priviledge.
    I appreciate your explanation of the reason the turtle giver turned the other turtle over. However, having taken your neurobio online class, wouldn’t it possibly have to do with mirror neurons?
    Thank you again for taking the time at this busy season to extend yourself for our benefit. Delightful stories, sure to be passed around tables all over!!
    Janet Voss


    • The involvement of mirror neurons in empathy is fairly controversial. Jean Decety, who has thought more about this than I have, thinks they are uninvolved. I suspect he is right. Let me share a couple of reasons. First, empathy means sharing the affect of another individual and is a bottom-up process. In other words we create in ourselves the affect that we view. We do that largely through spinal, brainstem and other subcortical pathways where there are no mirror neurons. Second the region where mirror neurons have been observed – premotor cortex – is minimally involved in the actions motivated by empathy, actions that may include helping. This answer may be a bit wanting and I hope to expand in a later post.


      • Peggy, thank you for your thoughtful response. And yes, I understand now how mirror neurons and empathy are unrelated systems. What I was wondering and did not explain very well is could the turtles have “stored memories” from earlier in their lives in terms of observing their parent turtles flipping them (and their turtle siblings) over when they were little tykes and their mirror neurons were active in helping the storage of those experiences? Thank you. Janet

        Sent from my iPhone



  2. Memory experiment check-in: I spent FIFTY SEVEN days in a RED CANOE with a PERSIMMON eating HEDGEHOG. The font colors were red, green, blue, tan and orange i think. Was I close?

    Also, thank you for the brain-tickling info below.

    Ann Robertson, former Coursera student in “Neurobiology of Everyday Life” ~Sent from iPhone



  3. This post got me thinking about reciprocity and the ‘naked brain fallacy’ ( the fallacy of assuming that all the interesting cognitive action is always going on in the brain, rather than being spread in delicate and often hard to understand ways between what the brain’s doing, what the body’s doing, and what the manipulable external world makes available) given the tortoise and rat examples. And in wondering if reciprocity had a genetic aspect to it I came across this:
    which buttresses the idea that reciprocity is a learned behavior associated with ‘intelligence’ so it would also seem that ,given the examples of the tortoise and rats again, there would seem to be a genetic ‘impulse’ in their behavior -perhaps associated with species survival coding in the DNA- that is a causative factor in the tortoise and rats assisting another..


  4. The first to do the helping may have bumped into it. The one who survived may have learned something that could be passed down to future generations. So we could say survival of the lucky ones and that makes them the fittest.


  5. I do have a problem with Anthropomorphism in turtles and would not use word like empathy or grief. Primates yes other mamals maybe. I wonder does my cat love me or does it have something to do with the food. Learning yes, stimulus -response conditioning in reptiles and amphibians. As far as the genetics one could say if a turtle helps another turtle living near, it might be a cousin.


    • Hi Francine,
      You’re right, of course that the meaning of a single observation such as this is completely unclear. For all I know, the helper could be a male and the recipient a female. The following behavior looks very similar to mating behavior that I once watched in a couple of Florida gopher tortoises.
      That said, I doubt that stimulus-response reflexes, if that is what you are suggesting, are explanatory of the wealth of helping anecdotes. That would be a large number of fairly idiosyncratic learned responses. Motivating behavior by affect is far more parsimonious.
      As far as helpers and help recipients needing to be related, not so in rat-land. And the now-common observation of cross-species helping pairs is further evidence that kinship is not necessary for helping to occur. Of course, I have no information about these two turtles and yes it is possible that they are related. Also possible they are not.
      Best, P


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