Rat psychology

by Stacy Owens

Senior Tessa Murphy doesn’t think rats are creepy or scary.

“They are actually really cute,” Murphy said.

Murphy got involved with the rats during the Learning and Motivation psychology class last semester, and has stuck by them ever since. She decided to apply for the psychology undergraduate position so she could be the rats’ primary caretaker.

“I wanted to work with the rats because I really like animals,” Murphy said. “I’m their main caretaker – I clean their cage and feed them.”

The final project for Learning and Motivation was Rat Olympics. The teams were comprised of three people and the assignment was to train their rats to complete an obstacle course. The competition was judged by associate professor of psychology Sal Meyers and associate professor of education Steve Rose.

“It was something different instead of doing homework or sitting at a computer; we got to play with the rats,” senior Amy Jobe said. “It’s something that people actually do in the psychology field.”

The teams trained their rats to walk across ropes and do several other activities. Their goal was to learn more about behaviorism by working with the rats.

“To study the rats we use conditioning by getting the rats to learn or acquire a specific behavior,” Murphy said. “Schedules of reinforcement are different ways of studying conditioning in rats.”

Tests are now being done to generalize rat behavior to a variety of human behaviors.

“People are now looking to rats to study anorexia, the biological basis of homosexuality and gambling addictions,” Murphy said. “There has also been some research done recently on rats concerning language learning.”

According to Murphy, rats are ideal for the studies because they’re easy to train.

“We use rats because they are naturally curious, which makes them easier to work with,” Murphy said.

When Murphy isn’t caring for the psychology department’s rats as the undergraduate assistant, she cares for them as a pet owner. She keeps two rats at home.

Murphy said she enjoyed the time she spent with the rats in the classroom, so she decided to take two of them home with her and keep them as pets.

“I have taken two of them home since the end of class,” Murphy said. “There are six of them left in the lab, but I have two at home that live in the same cage.”

After class ended, Jobe found herself attached to her rat, Gertrude, but she decided not to take it home and keep it as a pet.

“I can’t take care of animals at home, but I have gone to visit my rat twice this semester,” Jobe said.