Michael Chwe’s Jane Austen, Game Theorist

As trenchant observers of human nature, great fiction writers are often very good social scientists. Jane Austen, one of my favorite authors, was a writer with great analytical depth and insight. In addition to the irony and wit for which she is famous, Austen’s writing reflects the philosophical and cultural mindset of the “long 18th century” (1688-1837, from the Glorious Revolution to Victoria’s ascendancy), including the Scottish Enlightenment and writers like Samuel Johnson. Most of the action in her plots revolves around the tension among law, social mores, and economic considerations in the choices her protagonists make. Take Sense and Sensibility, for example – facing legal constraints on inheritance and social norms against professions for women of a certain social status, how do Elinor and Marianne strive to achieve happiness with severely limited economic resources? Reading Austen through the lens of social science shows how well she analyzed human choices and the structure of social interaction, a point my friend Marc Sidwell recently made in his City AM column.

I am not alone in my appreciation of Austen as a social scientist. Michael Chwe, a game theorist in the Political Science department at UCLA, has written a new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist (full disclosure: Michael and I went to graduate school together, and I’ve long been an admirer of his work). Michael argues that among the ways we think of Austen and her work, we should think of her as a social scientist, and indeed as an early game theorist. In May, Michael wrote this précis of his argument for a post at the PBS Newshour Business Desk blog:

This popular and beloved writer used little mathematics or economics. But Austen’s novels, written in the early 1800s, anticipated by more than a century the most fundamental game-theoretic concepts, including the emphasis on choice, the theory of utility, and the theoretical analysis of strategic thinking. In fact, Austen’s novels contain game-theoretic insights not yet superseded by modern social science. …

Austen has several names for strategic thinking, including “foresight” and “penetration.” For example, Mr. John Knightley warns Emma that Mr. Elton might be interested in her, but Emma is certain that Mr. Elton is interested in Harriet Smith. Mr. George Knightley had earlier warned Emma that Mr. Elton would never marry Harriet because of her lack of wealth. After Mr. Elton drunkenly proposes to Emma in a carriage, however, Emma admits to herself, “There was no denying that those brothers had penetration.”

Game theory assumes that a person thinks strategically about others. However, sometimes a person clearly does not. The conspicuous absence of strategic thinking, what I call “cluelessness,” is not something modern game theory tries to explain. But Austen does.

Michael’s argument proceeds along several dimensions in the book, but I’ll focus on a couple and encourage you to read the book yourself to experience his full argument (see also the resources available from UCLA to get a sense of his analysis). He points out, correctly I believe, that Austen focuses on choice in her plots – what choices do her protagonists confront, what constraints do they face (formal and informal), and what informs their individual characters that either enables them to make good choices or not? In this sense her focus is similar to that used in economics in general, not just game theory. Austen is also analytical; she is rightly famous for her deep and sensitive character development, and her pioneering use of the omniscient narrator to clue the reader in to the thought processes of her protagonists and what she as the author thinks you should think about them. Her narrative is more than descriptive (in fact, some readers are frustrated by her lack of description, and the variation in film adaptations indicates how much room for descriptive interpretation her narrative leaves!).

What’s interesting and original about Michael’s argument is his focus on Austen’s use of strategic thinking in her characters. In doing so he uses the modern tools and language of game theory to show how game-theoretic her perspective was, and I believe he does so pretty convincingly. He relies on the modern idea of strategic interaction to discuss the interdependence and interaction of the choices and behavior of individuals, and the idea that an external focus on the thoughts, incentives (motivations), and actions of others informs individual choices. For example, “[t]here are more than fifty strategic plans specifically named ‘schemes’ in Austen’s six novels” (p. 108), and “… in Austen’s novels, people calculate all the time without the slightest intimation that calculation is difficult, ‘cold’, or unnatural” (p. 109). Strategic thinking is not inherently mathematical, negative, or manipulative, but rather reflects an ability to imagine likely outcomes of various scenarios of interactions (a theme that Austen and Adam Smith share).

One concern I have for making this argument persuasive to our humanities colleagues, though, is a rhetorical one. We economists use the language of game theory deriving from von Neumann and Morgenstern’s adoption of the language of the “strategic” in the 1940s, a language that barely existed during Austen’s lifetime. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “strategy” first appeared in James’ New Military Dictionary in 1810, with “strategic” appearing in 1825. The language we use in economics differs considerably from Austen’s, so Michael’s analysis of her language is important. For example, the Jane Austen’s World blog points to a recent Freakonomics podcast on Michael’s book, and shows a word count of Austen’s words that reflect what we would call strategic thinking: scheme, sagacity, penetration, foresight, calculating. Michael relies heavily on the modern language of the “strategic”, and I think his argument may have a stronger foothold in the humanities if he had bridged a bit more among the modern economic language, Austen’s language, and more traditional literary analysis.

Although he does not employ much of the Scottish Enlightenment literature in his argument, Michael also points out some facets of Austen that reflect the ideas of Hume and Smith in particular. For example, he lists as one of Austen’s innovations that she has some of her characters strategize about themselves (i.e., look at their incentives and their opportunity sets from an external perspective) because Austen is well aware of the potential for personal bias in evaluating one’s own behavior (p. 157). This aspect of Austen’s writing is similar to Smith’s development of the psychological device of the spectator in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and his analysis of the biases inherent in evaluating one’s own behavior – our spectators are inherently partial, and we can live more happily and peacefully with others in society to the extent that we can view and judge our actions as an impartial spectator.

Michael is also right to evaluate Austen’s insights into what he calls “cluelessness”, or the inability of a character to understand the individual and subjective nature of the choices others make in the situations in which they find themselves. His analysis of the different ways that Austen thinks people can be clueless is the biggest strength of the book.

One thing that’s not clear in the argument is whether or not Michael distinguishes, or thinks Austen distinguishes, between strategic thinking and intelligence. A more typical interpretation of Austen’s use of phrases like “quick-witted” to describe characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse is that they are intelligent. Do strategic thinking and intelligence map into each other in any systematic way for Austen’s characters? I think they do, and are highly correlated but not the same. Both may arise from natural endowments and temperaments, both may be cultivated through education and experience. I’d like to have seen this compare/contrast explored more in the book, especially given the sophistication of her character development that makes her strategic (or intelligent?) characters not strategic all the time. Even her strategic thinkers are sometimes clueless, or are clueless in ways that they discover and amend through the experience of interaction with others. The relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy is the canonical example of this nuance, because they are both clueless in meaningful ways while being highly strategic in others.

Social scientists, and game theorists in particular, examine the structure of social interaction. One reason for the longevity of Austen’s popularity and influence (indicated most recently by her forthcoming appearance on the £10 note) has been precisely her insightful analyses of the structure of social interaction, and thus her work reflects game theoretic thinking. One final recommendation for Michael’s book is that he encourages thinking of game theory and strategic thinking not as a sterile, mathematical set of tools, but a more general analytical way of exploring social interaction and interdependence.

2 thoughts on “Michael Chwe’s Jane Austen, Game Theorist

  1. Only Lynne could combine Jane Austen and Smith’s TMOS so seamlessly. Brava! Brava!

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