Faced with the following two choices, which would you pick.
A: Your annual income is $50,000, but everyone else's income is $25,000.
B: Your annual income is $100,000, but everyone else's income is $200,000.
When one thinks only about one's own pocket, B is the obvious choice. However, when this question was put to graduate students and professors at a university in the United States, nearly 60 percent chose A. At a Japanese university, more than 70 percent of the respondents chose A.
Quite a number of people cannot stand to know that everyone else earns more than oneself. They can enjoy peace of mind if they know they stand above everyone else. They would be willing to put up with a smaller income if that situation could be achieved.
I learned about that experiment from Tatsuyoshi Saijo, a professor of design science at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Osaka University. He now leads a large project on experimental social sciences. A multidisciplinary approach that goes beyond differences in liberal arts and the natural sciences is seeking to unravel various mechanisms in the market, politics and society. Part of that research involves looking at "spiteful" acts that cut down the other party.
One experiment involved a game in which two people contributed money to build public goods, such as roads and bridges. The game was structured in such a way that the more money each player put in, the greater would be the benefits to both players. However, the experiment results showed that there were quite a few people who did not put in their money.
Those players were acting as free riders, enjoying the benefits from the roads and bridges that were built through the contributions of the other player.
Because one player did not put in money, the roads and bridges constructed were of low quality, meaning a proportionate decrease in the benefits to be enjoyed. Despite that, the player chose to outfox the other player.
According to Saijo, that trend is stronger among Japanese than among Americans and Chinese. There are suspicions that there are more spiteful people in Japan.
At the same time, spiteful acts can lead to enhanced cooperation.
Under a more complicated experiment, anyone who tried to be a free rider learned that the other party struck back with spiteful acts of their own. The player ignored the decreased benefits and tried to outfox the other player with the feeling that cheating would not be allowed.
As the game was repeated, the time came when the free rider realized the wrong of his ways and began to feel that cooperating with the other player would be preferable to outfoxing the rival. The free rider may have felt that he would face increasing danger if he did not cooperate.
In such cases, spiteful acts function as a form of punishment against free riders who violate social norms.
The essence of the experiment is that the players learn through a repetition of the game rather than in a single play.
After such learning processes have been completed, experimental results show that the Japanese tend to become more cooperative than Americans.
The observation that Saijo has gained from such experiments is: "Spiteful acts are the source of cooperation."
When we turn our eyes to Japanese politics, what has been all too common in Nagatacho recently has been nothing less than a battle of spiteful acts.
That has continued from the Diet gridlock that emerged when the Liberal Democratic Party was in control of government, but with the two chambers controlled by different parties, right up through the change in government and continuing until today.
The principle that seems to be controlling actions by the LDP now is: "Hit back if we are hit."
Although Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda tried to persuade the LDP to enter multipartisan discussions by quoting from speeches made by past LDP prime ministers, the LDP cannot easily forgive the various attacks it endured when the DPJ was still in the opposition.
That is because, as former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said, those attacks were truly vicious.
One lesson the DPJ-led government has likely learned from all this is: "If we attack, we face the possibility of a counter-attack."
Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada said, "We also have to reflect on a number of various acts that we carried out when we were the opposition party."
This all leads to the question of whether there is a way out of an endless series of acts to cut down the opponent on the part of both sides.
The key to whether Japan can emerge from that quagmire depends on whether the two sides act after calmly accepting the obvious fact that a change in government is not a single play in a game.
As the experiment between free riders and spiteful action shows, people will change their actions after learning from a repetition of a game.
While anything may be possible in a casual affair, if the two parties understand that the relationship will be a prolonged one, the wisdom may arise of enduring a short-term loss for a longer-term gain.
Of course, Japan now does not have the luxury of waiting for a number of future changes in government. Both the ruling and opposition parties should share in the ability to imagine what they would do if their positions were switched.
If a simultaneous reform of the social security and taxation systems can be realized and if a soft landing can be engineered through a calm discussion on dissolving the Lower House and holding a snap election, then the battle of spiteful acts that has continued until now will have served the purpose of being "the source of cooperation."
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Seiki Nemoto is a senior staff writer of The Asahi Shimbun.
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