Michael Chwe is an associate professor of political science at UCLA whose research centers on game theory and “its applications to social movements and macroeconomics and violence. He has written a book entitled Jane Austen: Game Theorist, which asserts that Austen is one of our best social theorists.
Steve Levitt of the University of Chicago, Economics Department uses the following definition of game theory: “The study of the strategic interactions between a small number of adversaries, usually two or three competitors”. This application is usually applied to sports and gambling.
In his introduction to the podcast between Levitt and Chew, Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the pop-economics book Freakonomics, writes that Levitt loves Clueless, a movie based on Emma, and has watched it repeatedly. The film is about a young woman who constantly schemes to set up others romantically and continually meddles in their lives. Levitt sees that Jane Austen does this intentionally and uses strategic thinking explicitly in her novels.
In the podcast Levitt interviews Michael Chwe about his interesting take on Jane Austen:
[T]here are lots of little parables, or little asides, in the novels which don’t have anything really much to do with the plot or anything. You could just take them out and no one would care, but they do seem to be little explicit discussions of aspects of choice and aspects of strategic thinking. So, for example, in Pride And Prejudice, the very first manipulation is kind of what gets the whole novel started. The Bingleys come into town and so the Bennet family has five unmarried daughters, and that’s kind of a huge problem. So Mrs. Bennet is super-focused on getting her daughters married and for obvious reasons. It’s not like they can get jobs or anything. If that is the main way, you could become either a governess or you could get married. That’s basically it. So the very first manipulation is Mr. Bingley shows up with his sister and they rent out Netherfield which is this estate nearby. And so Mr. Bingley’s sister invites Jane to come for dinner. And the first manipulation is Mrs. Bennet says, “Well you’ve got to go on horseback.” … The daughters say, “Why horseback? Shouldn’t she take the carriage?” And Mrs. Bennet says, “Well, it’s going to rain and if she goes on horseback it is very likely that they will invite her to stay the night, and hence she’ll get to spend more time.” [I]t seems kind of silly but you have to play for keeps. This is a big deal. If you know, if somebody marriageable is nearby and you have a chance to spend 20 more minutes with that person, you’ve got to go for it. … And so in Pride And Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet is not a very sympathetic character, and she seems to be very foolish, but if you look at what she accomplishes, it is pretty good. Jane marries and she incentivizes Lydia, who runs off with Wickham without being married, which is a scandal. But maybe she realizes that by creating this crisis situation the members in her family will solve he problem for her.
Here’s another interesting observation that Chwe makes: in Jane Austen’s novels, high status people have difficulty understanding that low status people are capable of strategic thinking.
Click here to see a short YouTube video on the topic.
The podcast from Freakonomics lasts another 17 minutes after the discussion quoted in the text above. Click here to enjoy the discussion!
My thanks to Christine Stewart for sending the link to the podcast!