Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Michael Suk-Young Chwe
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 280
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Jane Austen, Game Theorist
    Book Description:

    Game theory--the study of how people make choices while interacting with others--is one of the most popular technical approaches in social science today. But as Michael Chwe reveals in his insightful new book, Jane Austen explored game theory's core ideas in her six novels roughly two hundred years ago.Jane Austen, Game Theoristshows how this beloved writer theorized choice and preferences, prized strategic thinking, argued that jointly strategizing with a partner is the surest foundation for intimacy, and analyzed why superiors are often strategically clueless about inferiors. With a diverse range of literature and folktales, this book illustrates the wide relevance of game theory and how, fundamentally, we are all strategic thinkers.

    Although game theory's mathematical development began in the Cold War 1950s, Chwe finds that game theory has earlier subversive historical roots in Austen's novels and in "folk game theory" traditions, including African American folktales. Chwe makes the case that these literary forebears are game theory's true scientific predecessors. He considers how Austen in particular analyzed "cluelessness"--the conspicuous absence of strategic thinking--and how her sharp observations apply to a variety of situations, including U.S. military blunders in Iraq and Vietnam.

    Jane Austen, Game Theoristbrings together the study of literature and social science in an original and surprising way.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4625-2
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology, Mathematics, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. CHAPTER ONE The Argument
    (pp. 1-8)

    Nothing is more human than being curious about other humans. Why do people do what they do? The social sciences have answered this question in increasingly theoretical and specialized ways. One of the most popular and influential in the past fifty years, at least in economics and political science, has been game theory. However, in this book I argue that Jane Austen systematically explored the core ideas of game theory in her six novels, roughly two hundred years ago.

    Austen is not just singularly insightful but relentlessly theoretical. Austen starts with the basic concepts of choice (a person does what...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Game Theory in Context
    (pp. 9-34)

    Game theory considers interactions among two or more people and is built upon rational choice theory, which looks at the choice of a single individual. I use a simple example from Austen’sMansfield Parkto illustrate first rational choice theory and then game theory. Since strategic thinking is the central concept of game theory, I discuss it in some detail. I then use examples from William Shakespeare’sMuch Ado About Nothingand Richard Wright’sBlack Boyto illustrate how game theory can be useful, for example, in understanding popular revolt against a regime.

    The growth of game theory and rational...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Folktales and Civil Rights
    (pp. 35-42)

    Here i consider a handful of African American folktales that analyze strategic thinking (I rely on Levine 1977). In these tales, characters who do not think strategically are mocked and punished by events, while revered figures, like Brer Rabbit, skillfully anticipate others’ future actions. Of course, African American folktales and their interpretations constitute an enormous literature, and trickster figures appear in many world folk traditions: “Nothing illustrates the veiled cultural resistance of subordinate groups better than what have been termed trickster tales” (Scott 1990, p. 162; see also Hynes and Doty 1993, Landay 1998, and Pelton 1980). I suggest that...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Flossie and the Fox
    (pp. 43-48)

    The Flossie and the Fox story was told to Patricia C. McKissack (1986) by her grandfather. Flossie Finley, a little girl, is asked by her mother to deliver a basket of eggs to Miz Viola’s place. Her mother warns her to watch out for the fox, who loves eggs. Flossie says that she doesn’t know what a fox looks like; she doesn’t remember ever seeing one. “Oh well, a fox be just a fox. That aine so scary.” Flossie skips along and encounters a strange creature, who announces that he is a fox. Flossie looks him over carefully and says,...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Jane Austen’s Six Novels
    (pp. 49-96)

    In this chapter, I survey Austen’s six novels as chronicles of how a young woman learns strategic thinking skills, starting from as early as childhood. Strategic thinking not only helps you get married; learning strategic thinking is part of becoming a grown woman. When Fanny successfully manipulates her sister Betsey to give up Susan’s knife, she is “fearful of appearing to elevate herself as a great lady” (MP, p. 459). Fanny is right to suspect that her manipulation of Betsey carries with it a change of status, but it is a necessary change, from childhood to womanhood, from girl to...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Austen’s Foundations of Game Theory
    (pp. 97-114)

    Austen carefully establishes game theory’s core concepts: choice (a person takes an action because she chooses to do so), preferences (a person chooses the action with the highest payoff), and strategic thinking (before taking an action, a person thinks about how others will act). A person’s preferences are best revealed by her choices, and strategic thinking has several names, including “penetration.” Austen illustrates (the lack of) strategic thinking through her strategic sophomores, characters who think they are skilled but are not. Her strategically skilled characters know how to detect a person’s preferences by observing their eyes. In this and the...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Austen’s Competing Models
    (pp. 115-132)

    Austen’s emphasis on choice and strategic thinking does not keep her from considering competing models of human behavior; she acknowledges their relevance while maintaining a game-theoretic worldview overall. Indeed, strategic thinking is best understood in contrast and interaction with competing models.

    One competing model focuses on people’s emotions. Austen acknowledges that emotions can cause bad decisions. For example, the jealous Caroline Bingley remarks to Mr. Darcy that Elizabeth’s eyes have “a sharp, shrewish look,” but this only makes him reply that Elizabeth is “one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance” (PP, pp. 299, 300). Thus “Miss Bingley was left...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Austen on What Strategic Thinking Is Not
    (pp. 133-140)

    Austen carefully distinguishes strategic thinking from concepts possibly confused with it: selfishness, moralistic notions of what a person “should” do, economistic values, and winning inconsequential games. Like any social theorist, Austen seeks conceptual clarity. But she also wants to make particularly clear that she is not advocating selfishness or money-centrism or one-upmanship or anything as vulgar as telling young women “how to behave.” Strategic thinking should not be confused with a set of hackneyed prescriptions.

    For Austen, strategic thinking is not equivalent to selfishness. Of course some people exemplify both strategicness and selfishness, such as Willoughby and Lucy Steele. But...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Austen’s Innovations
    (pp. 141-170)

    Austen makes five particular advances in game theory. In this chapter I discuss four of them, leaving the last, her analysis of cluelessness, to chapter 12. First, Austen examines how two people form an intimate relationship by strategically acting in concert to manipulate a third. Second, she looks at how the relationship between a person’s multiple selves can be more complex than a simple chain of command. Third, Austen considers how a person’s preferences change, for example, when an alternative takes on a new social connotation. Fourth, Austen argues that true constancy is not the same as individual obstinacy but...

  14. CHAPTER TEN Austen on Strategic Thinking’s Disadvantages
    (pp. 171-178)

    No analysis of strategic thinking would be complete without recognizing its costs and disadvantages. Game theorists rarely go this far, but Austen’s ambition is comprehensive.

    First and most obviously, Austen notes that strategic thinking takes mental effort: one’s strategic thinking capacity is not infinite and strategic thinking competes with other cognitive demands. Elizabeth early on misperceives Mr. Darcy partly because she devotes all of her detection efforts toward Mr. Bingley: “Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend”...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Austen’s Intentions
    (pp. 179-187)

    One might say that strategic thinking is so integral to human interaction that it cannot be avoided; indeed, any narrative in which a character anticipates another’s actions illustrates strategic thinking to some degree. But illustrating strategic thinking is one thing; making it a central theoretical concern is altogether more ambitious.

    Is this Austen’s intention? If not, one would have to explain the inclusion of many particular and otherwise unnecessary details, such as Elizabeth’s argument to Jane that the pain of upsetting Mr. Bingley’s sisters relative to the joy of marrying him is best measured by whether Jane chooses to refuse...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE Austen on Cluelessness
    (pp. 188-210)

    Sometimes people do not understand that other people make their own decisions according to their own preferences. I call this “cluelessness,” after the movieClueless(1995), Amy Heckerling’s adaptation of Austen’sEmma.Austen’s comprehensive analysis of strategic thinking extends to understanding its conspicuous absence.

    Austen offers five explanations for cluelessness. The first is lack of natural ability: some people are not “naturally” geared towards strategic thinking and are inclined instead toward numbers, visual detail, literal meaning, and clear status distinctions. The second is social distance: an unmarried person for example is not so good at understanding married people because he...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Real-World Cluelessness
    (pp. 211-227)

    Building upon Austen’s analysis, I find real-world examples of cluelessness and come up with five explanations of my own. First, cluelessness can be considered as just another kind of mental laziness; still, I argue that cluelessness has more specific characteristics and needs more specific explanations. The second explanation is that to enter into another’s mind, one must imagine physically entering his body, and a higher-status person finds entering a lower-status person’s body repulsive. A third explanation is that clueless people rely upon and invest more in social status because it provides literal meaning in complicated situations; people not naturally talented...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Concluding Remarks
    (pp. 228-234)

    People have been trying to understand humans for a long time. Elster (2007, pp. x, 5–6) writes, “If we neglect twenty-five centuries of reflection about mind, action, and interaction in favor of the last one hundred years or the last ten, we do so at our peril and our loss” (see also Elster 1999). However, Elster does acknowledge recent progress: “rational-choice theory is nevertheless a valuable part of the toolbox. . . . Game theory, in particular, has illuminated the structure of social interaction in ways that go far beyond the insights achieved in earlier centuries.” Leonard (2010, p....

  19. References
    (pp. 235-250)
  20. Index
    (pp. 251-272)