Jane Austen: Game Theorist
It’s not every day that someone stumbles upon a major new strategic thinker during family movie night. But that’s what happened to Michael Chwe, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, when he sat down with his children some eight years ago to watch “Clueless,” the 1995 romantic comedy based on Jane Austen’s “Emma.”
Mr. Chwe (pronounced CHEH), the author of papers like “Farsighted Coalitional Stability” and “Anonymous Procedures for Condorcet’s Model: Robustness, Nonmonotonicity and Optimality,” had never cracked “Emma” or “Pride and Prejudice.” But on screen, he saw glimmers of a strategic intelligence that would make Henry Kissinger blush.
“This movie was all about manipulation,” Mr. Chwe, a practitioner of the hard-nosed science of game theory, said recently by telephone. “I had always been taught that game theory was a mathematical thing. But when you think about it, people have been thinking about strategic action for a long time.”
Mr. Chwe set to doing his English homework, and now his assignment is in. “Jane Austen, Game Theorist,” just published by Princeton University Press, is more than the larky scholarly equivalent of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” In 230 diagram-heavy pages, Mr. Chwe argues that Austen isn’t merely fodder for game-theoretical analysis, but an unacknowledged founder of the discipline itself: a kind of Empire-waisted version of the mathematician and cold war thinker John von Neumann, ruthlessly breaking down the stratagems of 18th-century social warfare.
Or, as Mr. Chwe puts it in the book, “Anyone interested in human behavior should read Austen because her research program has results.”
Modern game theory is generally dated to 1944, with the publication of von Neumann’s “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior,” which imagined human interactions as a series of moves and countermoves aimed at maximizing “payoff.” Since then the discipline has thrived, often dominating political science, economics and biology departments with densely mathematical analyses of phenomena as diverse as nuclear brinkmanship, the fate of protest movements, stock trading and predator behavior.
But a century and a half earlier, Mr. Chwe argues, Austen was very deliberately trying to lay philosophical groundwork for a new theory of strategic action, sometimes charting territory that today’s theoreticians have themselves failed to reach.
Most game theory, he noted, treats players as equally “rational” parties sitting across a chessboard. But many situations, Mr. Chwe points out, involve parties with unequal levels of strategic thinking. Sometimes a party may simply lack ability. But sometimes a powerful party faced with a weaker one may not realize it even needs to think strategically.
Take the scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands that Elizabeth Bennet promise not to marry Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth refuses to promise, and Lady Catherine repeats this to Mr. Darcy as an example of her insolence — not realizing that she is helping Elizabeth indirectly signal to Mr. Darcy that she is still interested.
It’s a classic case of cluelessness, which is distinct from garden-variety stupidity, Mr. Chwe argues. “Lady Catherine doesn’t even think that Elizabeth” — her social inferior — “could be manipulating her,” he said. (Ditto for Mr. Darcy: gender differences can also “cause cluelessness,” he noted, though Austen was generally more tolerant of the male variety.)
Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the link.