Home  |  Reviews  |  Vlogs  |  Interviews  |  Guest Posts  |  Fairy Tales  |  Jane Austen  |  Memes  |  Policies

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Jane Austen, Game Theorist | guest review from Lex Keating

Today's guest post comes from Lex Keating, who wanted to stop by and talk about the recently released Jane Austen, Game Theorist. This book has made a few waves, including an article in Slate from Adelle Waldman, whose debut will be covered later in AIA!Click through to see what Lex had to say about this interesting look at Austen, and keep an eye out for more from Lex, as she's going to be taking over our next Friday Face Off! 
Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-Young Chwe
Get It | Add It
272 pages
Published April 21st 2013 by Princeton University Press
Game theory--the study of how people make choices while interacting with others--is one of the most popular technical approaches in social science today. But as Michael Chwe reveals in his insightful new book, Jane Austen explored game theory's core ideas in her six novels roughly two hundred years ago. "Jane Austen, Game Theorist" shows how this beloved writer theorized choice and preferences, prized strategic thinking, argued that jointly strategizing with a partner is the surest foundation for intimacy, and analyzed why superiors are often strategically clueless about inferiors. With a diverse range of literature and folktales, this book illustrates the wide relevance of game theory and how, fundamentally, we are all strategic thinkers.

Although game theory's mathematical development began in the Cold War 1950s, Chwe finds that game theory has earlier subversive historical roots in Austen's novels and in "folk game theory" traditions, including African American folktales. Chwe makes the case that these literary forebears are game theory's true scientific predecessors. He considers how Austen in particular analyzed "cluelessness"--the conspicuous absence of strategic thinking--and how her sharp observations apply to a variety of situations, including U.S. military blunders in Iraq and Vietnam.

"Jane Austen, Game Theorist" brings together the study of literature and social science in an original and surprising way.

When I first came across this bit of news, I couldn't believe it. Why would a statistical theorist like Michael Chwe delve into the glorious verbal wonder of Austen? Didn't he know she was an unparalleled genius at story craft and character development? Who was this professor, to think he could disassemble my beloved literary mother and repackage her as numbers and graphs?


Technically, it's the sort of thing we're supposed to do for scholarly papers. So in some ways, this was like a trip down memory lane, to read all the cross-referenced notations and quotes that I hadn't seen since my own school days. Book lovers and literature students are seldom as liberal with random numbers or charts, but the affection for the subject remains intense and sweet. If a little weird.

But, there are probably people in this world who find it odd that I voluntarily reread at least two Austen titles per year. So let's take that with a grain of salt.

As someone with no game theory background, I appreciated Chwe's step-by-step explanation of the concepts at work in game theory. He put a lot of time and thought into how to translate his forest of decision trees into real-life and literary examples. (The examples from reality were explained in the least detail, and an entire chapter was devoted to folklore and civil rights. The latter, I suspect, is a frequent rabbit trail of Chwe's.) And the intense awe in which he holds Austen as a strategist and student of human nature endeared me where his numerical interpretation of entire conversations might have turned me off.

If you are someone who doesn't care to learn the process of thought involved in game theory, if you are someone who just wants to skip to the Jane-love, chapter five is where you want to jump into the book. The earlier chapters put his discussion of the books in context for game theory, and after this point the books are discussed first as examples of Austen's stratagems and later as an overarching framework of her principles. But Chwe also does an interesting thing with the books themselves, ordering them by the lessons of game theory that are taught or applied within the book. According to his ranking, Pride and Prejudice comes first as fewest-lessons-learned and Emma comes last as most-lessons-learned. The internal order of the other books was interesting, also, because his assessments of characters like Anne Elliot or Fanny Price were independent of factors like the author's personal circumstances or experience in story-telling—which are normally high-ranking considerations in literary discussions of Austen.

Yes, Chwe said it. Elizabeth and Darcy learn very little about strategy. According to this author, they enter the arena with their game theories fully developed, merely exercising their skills for the reader's benefit. Not precisely untrue, just vaguely heretical in his easy dismissal of a favorite love story.

The game theory dissection had its interesting points, too. Chwe found four points he thought Austen consistently preached for her protagonists, and five fallacies commonly found in strategy losers, his genuinely “clueless” anti-examples. He picked these out in detail in the chapters dedicated to individual precepts, but lovers of Austen should form their own opinions based on personal application.
1. A strategic partnership, wherein two people join forces to manipulate a third, is the best way to secure a marriage. (Two words: Lady Catherine.)
2. Every person is composed of multiple “selves,” which must be managed properly to achieve goals—such as marriage. (Fanny Price from the 1997 film version of Mansfield Park best exemplifies this.)
3. A change in preferences can drastically affect goals and outcomes. (Emma Woodhouse's willingness to rethink her single status after she finds herself jealous over Mr. Knightley.)
4. Love is not passive, but requires active cooperation and decision-making based on the object of one's affection. (Anne Elliot can pine over Captain Wentworth all she likes, but she'll have to speak up if she wants him back.)
1. Cluelessness can result from a lack of natural ability. (Which Chwe sometimes equates with autism.)
2. Cluelessness can result from social distance. (An unfamiliarity with the other person's mindset.)
3. Cluelessness can result from excessive self-reference. (Narcissists, beware!)
4. Cluelessness can result from status differences. (This argument applies specifically to snobs, who consider themselves superior to others and therefore do not consider the thoughts or feelings of others.)
5. Cluelessness occasionally works, because strategy isn't everything. (Jane and Bingley forevah.)
All in all, this is a much more scholarly endeavor than a “popular” read. And there were nowhere near as many graphs as I expected (these faded away after the first few chapters). It is always nice to see the genius of Jane praised for what it's worth, though I did feel the timeless empathy of her work was a little undermined by the search for manipulative schemes within the text. As much as I appreciated the game theory education, Chwe's point can be summed up in one of my favorite lines from the text: “Regardless of whether Austen intends to impart game theory in her novels, it is up to the reader to receive it.”

Click the pic to be taken to the Austen in August Main Page!
Thanks to faestock & inadesign for the images used to create this button.


  1. Thanks for this. When I saw the title I wondered if it was just another book trying to hang off Austen's popularity, but it sounds like there is quite a bit more to it.

  2. Glad there's a step-by-step explanation of game theory, otherwise it would probably go right over my head. This one does sound unique in the Austenesque genre.

  3. Literary criticism by way of mathematical theory....iiiiinteresting....

  4. I have a feeling that while I would find this interesting because its a different way of dissecting Jane Austen's novels, I would take forever to find the interest to read it straight through. Maybe if I heard it at a conference....

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Sorry, you lost me after game theory....It sounds like math to me. Thanks for reading it though. I would have forever wondered what game theory had to do with Jane Austen. Now, I don't have to.

  6. This book sounds absolutely fascinating and now I want it. Thanks for introducing me!


Tell me all your thoughts.
Let's be best friends.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...