Jane Austen, Game Theorist




I know a little bit about game theory as it applies to economics. Of course, half of that information comes from having read the book and watched the film version of A Beautiful Mind.

I also know something about Jane Austen because I had to read her book, Pride and Prejudice, in a college literature class. Don't ask me any questions about it though. At this distance from the reading, I do recall it has a famous opening line (though I had to open the book to double check) - "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

I read it back in the mid-1970s in a class of liberated women and the book felt very much like what would be called chick-lit today. It is all about marriage and we spent much of our discussion making fun of the mating rituals of the 19th-century Brits.

As with many novels I have read, the movie versions are clearer in my mind now having been seen more recently and the visuals being more vivid in memory. That means that in my head Mr. Darcy is Colin Firth and Elizabeth is Keira Knightley. And those two actors are not even in the same movie version! I don't feel too bad about it because when I mentioned this story to a fellow English major and he said that he thought Jane Austen was a character and novel "by one of those Brontes."

I did not read or watch Austen's Emma,  Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, or Lady Susan. Apparently, either have most economists including Michael Chwe, associate professor of political science at UCLA, whose research centers on game theory and its applications to social movements and literature” and Freakonomics co-author Steve Levitt who admit to the influence of the movie Clueless (which is based on Emma). Economist Levitt actually had a lot of trouble explaining game theory at all.

Chwe believes that Austen’s novels are full of strategic thinking, decision analysis and other things that would become the tools of game theorists a hundred years later. John Nash, the subject of A Beautiful Mind, and others at think tanks like the RAND Corporation just after World War II.

I probably won't go as far as to read Chwe's book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist , but I was very willing to listen to the podcast.

I'm not sure my fellow English majors or Austen fans would agree with his idea that there 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 may agree with his observations on the strategic thinking and manipulations involved in the plotting to deal with the Bennet family's five unmarried daughters.

One of those manipulations is when mom says to go to a dinner invitation via horseback rather than by carriage. The girls ask why. 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.”

The strategy works, although on paying a visit to Mr. Bingley's sister, Caroline, Jane is caught in a heavy downpour, catches cold, and is forced to stay over for several days. Elizabeth arrives to nurse her sister and gets to be in the frequent company of Mr. Darcy, who opens up to her.

Don't want to read? Try the Freakonomics episode "Jane Austen, Game Theorist”