You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Can You Apply Game Theory to Jane Austen?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Was Jane Austen a Game Theorist? Author Michael Suk-Young Chwe responds to William Deresiewicz's review of Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Michael Suk-Young Chwe Responds:

I am responding to William Deresiewicz’s January 18, 2014 review of my recent book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist. In the past, I have applied game theory to topics in economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. Recently, I have presented Jane Austen, Game Theorist to audiences of humanities scholars and Austen enthusiasts. Audiences unfamiliar with game theory are often wary at first, but usually once we get past superficial impressions and start talking about specific examples, we are able to engage in the moderately heated process of give and take, agreeing and disagreeing.

Thus I understand Deresiewicz’s review as a temporary panic attack which might give way to a more specific and meaningful discussion. The bulk of Deresiewicz’s comments are directed toward a phantasm quite unconnected with anything I say. In my book, I do not make any claim about "consilience," that science should "tutor" the humanities, that game theory is the "exclusive explanation of human behavior," that "art is merely a diffuse or coded form of scientific or social-scientific knowledge," that "artists are scientists in disguise," or that insights from literature "are valid only insofar as they approximate" ideas from other disciplines. I don’t make statements like these because I don’t believe them.

Game theory might sound scary and technical, but many of its arguments are very simple. Game theory is simply the analysis of how people make choices when other people’s choices matter too. For example, when a new smartphone comes out, my decision whether to buy it depends on how many other people will buy it, because more accessories will be available if it is popular. Thus the smartphone company through its advertising tries not only to make each person know about the smartphone, but also to make each person know that many other people know about it. In my 2001 book Rational Ritual, I apply this game-theoretic argument to public rituals and Super Bowl advertising.

Here is an example of an argument in Jane Austen, Game Theorist. In Austen's novel Emma, Emma Woodhouse discusses with Mrs. Weston why Jane Fairfax spends so much time with Mrs. Elton, the wife of the vicar Mr. Elton. Emma asks, "Why must she consent to be with the Eltons?—Here is quite a separate puzzle." Mrs. Weston responds, "We cannot suppose that she has any great enjoyment at the Vicarage, my dear Emma—but it is better than being always at home. Her aunt is a good creature, but, as a constant companion, must be very tiresome. We must consider what Miss Fairfax quits, before we condemn her taste for what she goes to." Mrs. Weston is saying that to understand a person’s choice, we must consider the alternative choices she could have made.

This is the concept of “opportunity cost” in economics, and Austen’s exposition could not be more explicit. The concept is commonsensical and follows immediately from any careful analysis of human choice, as in game theory. But, as Tressie McMillan Cottom points out, people often forget it. In her blog post "Blanket 'Don’t Go To Graduate School!’ Advice Ignores Race and Reality?", Cottom points out that people who argue against going to graduate school often forget that the alternative of not going to graduate school is not the same for everyone: “Let’s not advise them to do something better [than going to graduate school] when all empirical evidence suggests that for black, qualified workers there often isn’t a 'better.'"

Did Austen intend to explore the concept of opportunity cost in this passage? The fact that the term “opportunity cost” and modern economic theory did not exist when Austen wrote is immaterial; the concept is easy to understand and describe, regardless of what you call it or what “field” you think it belongs to. Just because we now call Austen a “novelist” does not mean, as Deresiewicz writes, that “she had no use for concepts.” Ruth Ozeki’s recent A Tale for the Time Being is concerned with time, causality, and quantum mechanics, and even includes “technical” appendices.

Mrs. Weston’s explanation of opportunity cost does not illuminate her character or advance the plot. Why is it there? Austen was famously precise, and I would not call any of her choices “trivial.” To argue that Austen consciously intended to explore choice, preferences, and strategic thinking, the foundational concepts of game theory, I have to do what scholars usually do, which is to assemble textual evidence and find patterns. People interested in the kind of evidence I use can download two chapters of my book. By saying that Austen explored concepts such as opportunity cost before economists did, of course I am not saying that this is Austen's sole motivation in writing her novels or that this is the only way her novels can be understood.

In any meaningful discussion, it helps to keep things factual. Deresiewicz makes several factual errors about my book. For example, Deresiewicz says that my book claims that Austen "was the very first to show an interest" in choice, preferences, and strategic thinking. I do not make this claim. The first page of my book includes the sentence, "In her ambition, Austen is singular but not alone." Two chapters of my book discuss African American slave folktales, which have ancient origins. Deresiewicz writes, "the notion that [Austen used] … decision trees, decision matrices, numerical inputs and outcomes—is truly idiotic." In my book I write, "Austen did not engage in game theory's mathematical development." Deresiewicz writes that my book claims that Austen's interest in strategic thinking "constituted her essential purpose in creating them." In my book I write, "There is, of course, an immense literature on Austen, and I cannot claim the primacy of my own reading."

I would like to encourage anyone interested in creating conceptual “mash-ups,” especially students, to not be deterred by the disciplinary policing exemplified by Deresiewicz. Any field worried about declining enrollments and interest should try to generate excitement about the field, not patrol its borders.

Finally, a word about Deresiewicz’s word choice. In Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh tells Elizabeth Bennet that she cannot marry the high-status Mr. Darcy, telling her not to “quit the sphere in which you have been brought up.” Lady Catherine snaps, “Are the shades of Pemberley [Mr. Darcy's estate] to be thus polluted?” By “pollution,” Lady Catherine resorts to the language of social caste, which is extremely offensive, and Elizabeth responds, “You have insulted me in every possible method.” Like Lady Catherine, Deresiewicz insists that scholars stay in their own spheres. Deresiewicz uses the words “effluent” and “contaminates” to describe my book. 

William Deresiewicz Responds

I agree with Michael Chwe that it is best to talk about specific examples, and I thank him for including one that offers a fair illustration of his methods and their value. Chwe would have us believe that Jane Austen, a writer who never wasted a word, would stop her novel Emma in its tracks in order to insert, in the mouth of one of her characters, the utterly banal idea that “to understand a person’s choice, we must consider the alternative choices she could have made.” And not only that, but that she did so, as he tells us on the first page of his book, as part of a systematic theoretical exploration of strategic thinking that was her “explicit intention” in writing the novels.

I invite the reader to turn to the passage in question, which occurs about the middle of chapter 33, page 265 in the current Penguin Classics edition (you can find it with a keyword search of “puzzle”). What you immediately see, though Chwe apparently can’t, is that Mrs. Weston’s explanation does indeed advance the plot. The question of why the admirable Jane Fairfax would consort with the odious Eltons is not a theoretical one. It goes to Emma’s weaknesses of character, the novel’s central subject. Jane is spending time with the Eltons, Mrs. Weston implies, because you, Emma, have refused to do the right thing by spending time with her yourself. And lest there be any doubt on the point, on Emma’s part or ours, it is seconded immediately by Mr. Knightley. Given the baleful role that Mrs. Elton is soon to play in Jane’s life, this is no small matter. Because of her snobbish refusal to mix with those beneath her, Emma forfeits to her rival the social leadership she ought to be exerting within her community. The point of Chwe’s passage is not for Austen to tell us to consider the other choices people have available; it is for Mrs. Weston to tell Emma to consider the other choices that Jane Fairfax should.

But to reason thus is to understand the novel as an intricate, organic whole, one in which each part bears on the meaning of every other part (the term for that is literary criticism), and this Chwe does not do and does not seem capable of doing. His method throughout is to dismember Austen’s novels into little bits and shove them through his theoretical sausage maker. That is how he ends up telling us, among many comparable absurdities, that Lydia Bennet is a savvy strategic thinker, since she manages to end up with Mr. Wickham, or that young gentlemen are socially inferior to young ladies, which is why, in Austen’s world, the latter aren’t supposed to be the first to get romantic ideas.

The fact is I was kinder than I might’ve been to Chwe’s book, because I didn’t dwell on what an utter farrago it is, simply in logical terms. Categories blur and slide. Paragraphs consist of large heaps of examples that are apt as not to contradict the argument going forward. Sections and chapters break off in the middle (as does his letter itself), leaving us to wonder what the point has been. Chwe does indeed tell us, on his first page, that the exploration of strategic thinking is “Austen’s explicit intention,” but he also tells us, six pages later, that there is no “direct evidence for this claim”—leaving us to wonder what the meaning of “explicit” is for him, just as we wonder about the meaning of “systematic” or “theoretical.”

To the extent that I inadvertently misreported some of Chwe’s claims, I was wrong to do so. But it often isn’t easy to decipher what those are. No, he doesn’t say that Austen was the first to show an interest in game theoretical ideas. But he does claim, with an equal lack of evidence, not only that she was “singular” in this regard, but that she pioneered a whole handful of them, especially the one that he refers to as “cluelessness”—as if there hadn’t already been any number of characters in literary history, indeed whole categories of characters (the ingénue, the pedant, the miles gloriosus or braggardly soldier of classical comedy), who display a “conspicuous absence” of “strategic thinking.”

He doesn’t say that she was interested in decision trees and so forth, but he does end his book by claiming that she suggests “the possibility of understanding human behavior using a technical, mathematical approach”—though just exactly what he thought she might have meant by that, in 1812, is a difficult question. Finally, he may have said that he cannot claim the primacy of his own reading, but he spends his book doing exactly that. In a more polite but equally devastating review in the newsletter of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Ernest Davis, a computer scientist at NYU, puts his finger on the book’s essential problem: selection bias. When you’re a game theorist, everything looks like a decision tree.

The fact that some other writer, in some other century, may be interested in scientific concepts tells us precisely nothing. Austen is conspicuous, among the great novelists, in almost never making general assertions—and when she does, as in the famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, in seating them upon an abyss of irony. They are literary statements, in other words, not conceptual ones. To speak of her novels as “game theory textbooks” (or any other kind), even in a metaphorical sense, is to get them exactly wrong.

I have no objection to interdisciplinary approaches to the humanities, including ones that derive from the sciences. (It may interest Chwe to know that I was a science major myself.) But you actually have to know something about the humanities. Chwe is evidently ignorant, not only of literary history and of the social history of Austen’s time, but of the nature of fiction itself: how a novel works, what makes it different from a treatise or even a factual account. I’m all for generating excitement, but not at the cost of coherence. Chwe’s book does nothing to illuminate the novels and a great deal to obscure them. It should be obvious by now that the reaction it evokes in me is very far from panic.