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Research Topics

(1) He who gives to another bestows on himself

The puzzle of generalized exchange


One of the most prevalent forms of human relationships is exchange or Give and Take. But would we never be kind to someone if we know there is no chance for a return from that person in the future? It seems this is not the case as there are many examples of people being kind to others without the possibility of return. Indeed, this altruistic giving makes sense intuitively and has also been validated by various empirical data.


Then, the question remains why do humans engage in such behaviors? Subjectively people often feel that they want to be kind to another person but if we accept this, why then, do humans possess a psychological mechanism, which makes them want to be kind to others? This is a serious puzzle if adopting the adaptationist approach as, according to the underlying theory, such behavior must be maladaptive because since it unilaterally benefits the targets but creates costs for the generous actors. This problem has been recognized as the core of the problem of altruism in evolutionary biology. However, from the end of the 20th century, research addressing this topic has begun to progress rapidly. The basic idea, which has developed to account for the existence of altruism, is that it functions as part of a system of generalized exchange that is maintained by indirect reciprocity. Unlike the theory of Give and Take, there is no direct return from the target of the kind behavior, but people can still receive benefits indirectly from other people. This is why being kind to others can still be adaptive without direct reciprocity. Indeed, this is the core principle of indirect reciprocity. When this principle holds across an entire society, we call it ‘generalized exchange’. Such generalized exchange is a feature unique to human societies since no other species display such behaviors. However, how generalized exchange could emerge in the first place is a very difficult problem to answer. As a result the conditions under which generalized exchange can emerge, and the relationship between generalized exchange and other phenomenon in human societies are now research topics receiving attention from researchers in various disciplines. In our lab, we are conducting research on these issues utilizing both modelling and empirical studies.

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(2) Social dilemmas

How to achieve mutual cooperation


After the Tohoku Earthquake in 2011, people were requested to engage in efforts to conserve power due to the decreased power supply following the suspension of Japan’s nuclear power plants. In such a situation there is a clear social dilemma; for each individual it is beneficial to turn on the air conditioner during the summer and the heater during the winter but, if all individuals were to behave this way the power supply would run short, and eventually there would be a power failure. As with this example, pursuing self-interest at the individual level often leads to less desirable outcomes at the societal level, and this phenomenon is thus referred to as a social dilemma. Such social dilemma situations have existed during the human history. Therefore, humans must have found a way to solve social dilemmas but how was this possible? And if there are multiple solutions, how do humans determine which is the best solution to use? To address these questions research has been conducted from the middle of the 20th century in a variety of disciplines, including sociology, economics, political science, anthropology, and psychology. When looking back in history, it might be relatively easy to understand how we could solve social dilemmas in small-scale local communities. However, it is much more difficult to address when social dilemmas involve large nations or, indeed, the entire population of the earth, as is the case with the issue of global warming. Consequently, gaining a deeper understanding of how to resolve large-scale social dilemmas is an urgent task that humans face. Our lab seeks to contribute to these international efforts and conducts a variety of studies on this topic.

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(3) Others

In addition to the major research topics described in (1) and (2), our lab also conducts research on fairness (e.g., under what situations people want to restore fairness, what is the adaptive basis of fairness, and the significance of having a shared cognition of unfairness), societal difference in the investment of cognitive resources (e.g., which of two investment strategies are used; relation-specific investment in order to maintain relationships with specific others and relation-general investment in order to build new relationships with general others, and how this distinction operates in Japan and the US), and the relationships between multiple learning abilities.

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Major research methods

Our lab uses a selection of complementary research methods including modelling, laboratory experiments, and questionnaire studies. For each research objective, the most appropriate method is selected.

(1) Modelling

We make use of computer simulation and mathematical modelling. Simulations are considered as a substitute for advanced mathematics and this means that the requirement of mathematical knowledge for modelling in our lab is basically high school level mathematics proficiency. The purpose of using modeling and simulation is to deduce logically the consequences, given the assumptions and constraints for social interaction. Even when people believe that they are thinking logically, it is inevitable that various cognitive biases are operating and influencing decisions. Moreover, it is often the case that people draw conclusions which have no logical basis which can be the case due to being unable to handle or grasp fully the complicated processes in our brain. In these situations, modelling can be extremely useful as it shows what can happen logically and why certain outcomes happen in a manner that can help people to understand the various causes and connections.

(2) Laboratory experiments

Various types of experiments are conducted in our lab but the typical format includes multiple participants making decisions while being placed under specific conditions or designs in which participants interact with others in a controlled fashion. We make use of both paper and pencil methods and computer programs to enable participants to interact amongst one another. Occasionally, participants engage in face-to-face interactions so that collective group functions can be observed. The main purpose of utilizing an experimental method is in order to test the predictions of theories under controlled conditions. In real society, outside the laboratory, there are many confounding factors that influence people’s behaviors and this can make it difficult to identify causal relationships. Thus, it is almost impossible to test theories rigorously ‘in the field’. Therefore, laboratory experiments, in which the influence of specific factors other than the ones to be tested, can be controlled for and excluded are necessary.

(3) Questionnaires

In our lab, we also make use of relatively small, targeted questionnaire surveys. In general, we do not seek to conduct large national social surveys but rather to make use of smaller response groups drawn from convenient samples, such as university undergraduate students. The purpose of most of our questionnaire surveys is to identify and explore potentially important factors. In experiments, it is important to focus on only one or two factors, in order to manipulate them effectively, however, in order to identify important factors the results of surveys can provide a rough and easy to collect guide.

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Research Topics
He who gives to another bestows on himself
Social dilemmas
Major research methods

Department of Behavioral Science,
Graduate School of Letters,
Hokkaido University

Nobuyuki Takahashi’s lab

Kita-10, Nishi-7, Kita-ku
Sapporo, Hokkaido 060-0810

Phone: +81-11-706-4153 Fax: +81-11-706-3056