“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 bet Michael Chwe would be good at bidding on the Price is Right.

Michael Chwe

Hi A.J.---there are actually several papers applying game theory to The Price is Right. A recent one is "To Spin or Not To Spin: Natural and Laboratory Experiments from The Price is Right" by Rafael Tenorio and Timothy N. Cason. They look at people who play "The Wheel," in which three people spin a wheel which has numbers from 5 to 100. Each person has two chances to spin the wheel; if the total of your two numbers is greater than 100, you lose immediately, so each person must decide whether to spin the wheel a second time. The person who has the highest total less than or equal to 100 wins the game.

Tenorio and Cason find that people are very good at making the right decision in the obvious cases (when your first spin yields the number 40 or less, or when it is 70 or higher) but in the less obvious cases (when your first spin is from 50 to 65), people tend to err in favor of not spinning the wheel, even when they optimally should.



Dan Armstrong

I wonder whether you could provide a way to simply download the mp3 file of the podcast.

I listen to podcasts in the car by copying them onto a flash drive that I plug into the USB port on the dashboard. Using the player requires that I be sitting at my computer to listen. I don't have an iPod and don't really want to install iTunes on my computer just to listen to Freakonomics - none of the other podcasts I listen to require iTunes, I simply copy the files onto the memory stick.

Oh, wait. I just figured it out. Go to the RSS feed page. Right-click on the "share" icon. Choose "save link as." Copy the file to the flash drive. Let's see if this works.

On the other hand, you could just provide a link titled "Download." Think about it.

Bourree Lam

Hey Dan,

If you hit the WNYC logo on our player (for any podcasts), it will take you to the page with a download button:



rebecca reynolds

I love that the poltical scientist is looking at literature, but most readers of Austen would be sorely disappointed were the "little parables and asides" to disappear from her novels! After all, as even Chwe implicitly suggests, strategic thinking on the part of the characters (especially the women) actually drives the plot -- and Austen's very keen insights into the politics of marriage, class, and relationships are what make her novels so delightfully compelling. Human behavior, strategic thinking, and plot are certainly not mutually exclusive but deeply interwoven in literature and life. At any rate, without such parables and asides, Austen would not be Austen.

Michael Chwe

Hi Rebecca---I agree with you completely---the asides are what make Austen Austen. I should not have said, "you could just take them out and no one would care"---I myself definitely care about them (I wrote a book about them)! Often people ask me what is the conclusive evidence that Austen was concerned with strategic thinking as a theoretical topic, and I respond by bringing up these asides, which seem to have no other function and which are explicitly about choice and strategic thinking.

In the book, I discuss in detail how strategic thinking drives the plots of the book. I agree with your statement that human behavior, strategic thinking, and plot are deeply interwoven---I could not have said it better myself. There's a sample chapter of the book at



Penelope Madry

Another book you might want to check out is Kimberly Kalaja's "Reading Games: The Aesthetics of Play in Flann O'Brien, Samuel Beckett, and Georges Perec," which also uses Game Theory to analyze literature.

Frances Grimble

I'm a huge Jane Austen fan, for what it's worth. I think Jane Austen is describing how people did behave in her time period. Austen realized that it was financially crucial for most women to marry; one of her famous comments outside her books is that "single women have a dreadful propensity to be poor." But Austen was the daughter and sister of clergymen and had a strong moral sense of exactly how far a women should go to attract a husband. Dressing prettily, dancing at balls, conversing entertainingly, playing the piano, walking together with young men: All fine. But Austen strongly indicates that Lydia Bennett was definitely crossing the line and since she was bailed out not by her relatives, but by Mr. Darcy, there was a strong chance Lydia would have otherwise "come upon the town" (become a prostitute), which is an alternative Austen explicitly and negatively presents. Others Austen characters are also often depicted as crossing a moral line, including Mary Crawford in "Mansfield Park", even though it was her *brother* who eloped with a married woman and really, all Mary did is make a joke about gay sex in the Navy and criticize religion. Austen even condemns Lucy Steele for kissing up to a rich woman and eloping with her younger son, then being forgiven--financially as well as personally--for continuing to kiss up to her mother-in-law. Austen is a rationalist and a realist, and she admits that strategies like this work, but she also disapproves of them. For her, religion, family solidarity, rationality, even intelligence are more important values.