“Jane Austen, Game Theorist” (Ep. 132)
Our latest podcast is called “Jane Austen, Game Theorist.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
It is an episode about, yes, Jane Austen and game theory. To which you might say … wha?
Okay, a bit more explanation is necessary. Michael Chwe is an associate professor of political science at UCLA whose research centers on game theory and, as he puts it, “its applications to social movements and macroeconomics and violence — and this latest thing is about its applications maybe to literature.”
The literature in question? The novels of Jane Austen. Chwe discovered that Austen’s novels are full of strategic thinking, decision analysis, and other tools that would later come to be prized by game theorists like those as the RAND Corporation just after World War II. (They included some of the brightest minds of the time, including Kenneth J. Arrow, Lloyd S. Shapley, Thomas Schelling, and John Nash.) And so Chwe wrote a book called Jane Austen, Game Theorist.
Here, from the podcast, is a sample of Chwe’s analysis of 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.
The conversation with Chwe is (in my opinion at least) very interesting — as is Steve Levitt’s attempt to explain game theory as succinctly as Michael Chwe does. For what it’s worth, Levitt has written some great game-theoretic papers, including these:
- “Professionals Do Not Play Minimax: Evidence from Major League Baseball and the National Football League”
- “Testing Mixed-Strategy Equilibria When Players Are Heterogeneous: The Case of Penalty Kicks in Soccer”
- “Winning Isn’t Everything: Corruption in Sumo Wrestling”
- “The Role of Skill Versus Luck in Poker: Evidence from the World Series of Poker”