January 28, 2022 | OPINION | By Emma Logan
The morality of the Intro to Psychology rat lab has long been debated on campus. Questions concerning whether academia has the right to institute animal subjects into research and then kill them (once they no longer serve an educational purpose) have accompanied the rat lab since its founding. However, despite the ethical implications of using and disposing an animal’s life in such a way, one must also ask if it is ethical to demand that students partake.
According to a recent Intro to Psychology syllabus, the inclusion of the rat lab is meant to solidify various concepts through hands-on lab experience with live subjects. Ideally, the combination of daily training and a cumulative report at the end of the course gives students the chance to observe psychological conditioning in action.
While that reasoning sets the theoretical intention for the lab, as someone who recently took the course, I must admit that the reality of the rat lab does not justify its true lack of necessity and the emotional turmoil it causes.
To begin, it is run completely by the Psychology Department para-professor with little involvement by the primary professor, solidifying the program as a developmental afterthought. In addition to rat training, students are also asked to participate in secondary in-person labs and experiments. Why, then should students be forced to do the rat lab at all? Even if one could argue that the rat lab is necessary to provide hands-on experience, which the presence of other labs contradicts, the ethical toll of the program remains.
Students are explicitly told that they must physically bond with their rat. From day one, students are instructed to acclimate the animals to their touch and voice. This results in the first day or two of the block consisting almost solely of cuddling and playing with one’s rat. Following this initial bonding period, students are also told they must continue to connect with the animal for 10-15 minutes every single day before training. This act is called ‘adaptation.’
It doesn’t seem reasonable for the department to tell students that they must bond with their rat, including the responsibility of feeding and training it every single day for up to 24 days, and then simply expect them not to become attached to these animals.
Worse, in the event that a student does become inexplicably connected with their rat, the school offers an adoption process only for students living off-campus. However, Psychology 101 is an introduction class that usually consists of first years and sophomores looking to fulfill their lab credit or enter into the major. Such a condescending offer leaves most students frantically struggling to find their rat another home, trying to take advantage of whatever opportunity may exist to save the animal even though the majority of students living in residence halls are not allowed to house a rat.
Forcing any student to feel an overwhelming amount of guilt because they cannot save an animal that they essentially began to raise is cruel. One begins to wonder if not including such an emotionally harmful program in the course would result in fewer tears shed and an ultimately similar educational result.
The question isn’t ‘how much should we expect rats to sacrifice for a student’s education?’, but ‘how much should we expect students to sacrifice for their own education?’ The rat lab isn’t a lesson in psychological discipline, it’s a lesson in emotional suppression.