In one, scientists at the University of Chicago put two rats in an arena, one held by a restrainer, the other free. They found that the free rat learned to "intentionally and quickly open the restrainer and free the cagemate." They interpreted this result as "providing strong evidence for biological roots of empathically motivated helping behavior."
In the other case, Drs. Hollis and Nowbahari themselves did a very similar experiment with ants. They found that ants were prepared to rescue fellow ants held in a nylon snare and showing obvious distress. Just like the rats, the hero ants would chew at the restraints (though not if the victims were anesthetized or from different colonies or species). Happy to describe such behavior as "pro-social," they did not go so far as to attribute empathy to the ants. There was no reason to think that the hero ants were motivated by a wish to alleviate the suffering of the victims. More likely, they possessed a self-interested instinct to help get a co-worker back to work.
How does this differ from humans? Humans would probably behave in similar ways if we put them in similar situations, but is the psychological motivation different? Adam Smith seems to think so:
In his 1759 book the "Theory of the Moral Sentiments," philosopher Adam Smith argued that empathy (he called it sympathy) was motivated by the capacity to imagine being another person. "When I condole with you for the loss of your only son, in order to enter into your grief, I do not consider what I, a person of such a character and profession, should suffer, if I had a son, and if that son was unfortunately to die; but I consider what I should suffer if I was really you; and I not only change circumstances, but I change persons and characters. My grief, therefore, is entirely upon your account, and not in the least upon my own. It is not, therefore, in the least selfish."
The article concludes that either we think that rats are capable of this Smithian imagination (which the author concludes is absurd), or we assume that animals must have different motivations than humans. OR!!!! And this was what I was thinking this whole time, but the author finally admits at the end a big OR to this whole thing is that maybe humans don't have the psychological motivations that they think they do. Maybe the humans are doing things for the same reasons as the rats: "Can we be so sure it is fellow-feeling rather than instinct that drives us to our virtuous as well as our vicious actions?"
If we are really the empathy equivalent of rats, maybe we invented empathy to give ourselves a nice story. In other words, maybe humans give a positive spin on their "choices" after the fact, the same way they do with free will (or should I say, free won't). I feel like I just discovered the necessary plot device to make the Matrix IV relevant.