“Jane Austen, Game Theorist” (Ep. 132)

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(Photo: Charlotta Wasteson)

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. ArrowLloyd S. ShapleyThomas 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:


I always said Jane Austen was one of the great fantasy novelists of all time, it only makes sense she'd think like an economist.

Dave F.

please.... for the sake of fantasy enthusiasts out there that have to filter through all kinds of mystery, romance, etc. while looking for a new great book to read (or movie on Netflix) - don't call Jane Austen fantasy. Stick to fictional works that, in the words of Wikipedia, "uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting."

sorry, pet peeve

Michael Chwe

Thanks! More info at http://janeaustengametheorist.com . A video trailer is at http://youtu.be/FUCGP3f8GQI and a sample chapter is at http://bit.ly/XUaLUs !


Hehe! Cool trailer, very funny!


Sort of makes you wonder how she'd have been able to contribute to the world if she hadn't had the wrong chromosomal pairing for her culture.


The whole point of EMMA is that all the games she played backfired, so the safest thing to do is not to play any games at all.

Janus Daniels

"You could just take them out and no one would care... the very first manipulation is kind of what gets the whole novel started."
You could just take out "what gets the whole novel started" and all the choice motivations of all the characters "and no one would care"?
I hope that few critics, and no economists, have ever achieved such cluelessness.
Sadly, a pre-dashed hope.

Janus Daniels

Strangely, after writing "take them out and no one would care" Chwe subjects them to intelligent and penetrating analysis, revealing them as central and pivotal. Chwe has proven a deep understanding of Austen's writing. Yet, nearly no understanding of her readers?

Michael Chwe

Hi Janus---of course, I don't consider Mrs. Bennet having Jane go on horseback to Netherfield an "aside" which can be taken out. By "asides" I meant things like Emma's and Mrs. Weston's discussion of opportunity cost (why Jane Fairfax spends so much time with Mrs. Elton), which is mentioned later in the interview. Either I didn't speak clearly enough or the Freakonomics folks changed the order of my statements around a bit (in general, I can use all the audio editing I can get!).

Other "asides" include, for example, Jane Fairfax and Mr. John Knightley's discussion of what explains the reliability of postal service workers (Mr. John Knightley first says it is because of postal workers' habits, but then says that the underlying explanation is that they are paid). Here Austen considers two explanations for a phenomenon, habit and rational choice, and decides in favor of rational choice.



If you like Game Theory...you bet you would really enjoy Prospect Theory. It is a much better model by filling some of the holes in Game Theory.

John Sweeney

Hey, guys, listening to your podcasts, I hear you using some neat music. Think you could credit that somewhere so we listeners could follow up?

Michael Chwe

I think the music is great too---all the music is credited on the transcript page:

Roger rabbitt

This whole program could have been ten minutes instead of thirty.

Arnie Perlstein

For all the answers to the questions posed by Stephen Dubner re WHY Jane Austen intentionally engaged in game theory dramatizations in her novels, just browse among the 983 posts at my Austen related blog:


When Jane Austen famously wrote in a letter to her sister that she did not write for "dull elves", she was in part saying that she was writing for the sharp elves who would see past the romantic veneer of her novels, and detect her theoretical concerns, and engage with them.

So, e.g., in the example Michael Chwe gave of Jane Bennet catching cold because she rode over on horseback in the rain to meet with the Bingleys at Netherfield, a whole new perspective opens up on the novel when you realize that "catching cold" was a euphemism for getting pregnant!

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


While listening to your podcast, it occurred to me that I am an excellent game theorist in one area of my life. I may have just found the silver lining in my dark cloud. I am an adult who grew up in an alcoholic home. As a child, out of necessity, I learned to read my parents to try to stay several moves ahead of the craziness. Children in homes with drug addition, alcoholism or mental illness use game theory as a survival instinct. They are highly tuned in to all possible moves the adult(s) in their life might make and they strategize their own best move to either avoid or support the adult.
In some ways being hyper tuned in to the emotions of those around you is helpful later in life, but it can also hinder you. I am great at reading a room and it is difficult to turn off my awareness to any "haters" in a group.
Thank you for the podcast and the insight I gained from it. Love all your work. I quote you all the time.


Michael Chwe

Hi Karen---thank you so much for your post. Several folks have told me of having similar experiences as yours---they feel that they have developed very good strategic thinking out of necessity, because of childhood experiences. The psychologist Seth Pollak and coauthors have written a lot on how one's childhood experiences affect one's perceptions of others' emotions. One example is the paper by Pollak and Sinha below: