jane austen

What little I  know about game theory as it applies to economics mostly comes from having read the book and watched the film version of A Beautiful Mind.

I know a bit about Jane Austen because I had to read some of her books (like Pride and Prejudice) in my college literature classes. Don’t ask me any questions about the books though. It has been a long time since those assigned readings.

I vaguely recalled that P&P has a famous opening line (though I had to check that online) – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

When I read that novel, it was the mid-1970s in a class of mostly liberated women and the book felt very much like what would be called chick-lit today. I recall the novel being mostly about marriage and I definitely recall much of the class discussion was 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 to a fellow English major, he said that he thought Jane Austen was “a character is some novel by one of those Brontes.”

austen cover

I did not read or watch Austen’s Emma,  Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, or Lady Susan. Apparently, either have most economists. Except for Michael Chwe, associate professor of political science at UCLA. His  research centers on game theory and its applications to social movements and literature.

I had listened to a Freakonomics podcast with economist Steve Levitt who admitted to being influenced by the movie Clueless (which you may not know is loosely based on Austen’s Emma). Levitt actually had a lot of trouble explaining game theory himself, so they turned to Chwe for help.

Professor Chwe believes that Austen’s novels are just full of strategic thinking, decision analysis and other things that would become the tools of game theorists many years later.

John Nash, the subject of A Beautiful Mind,  was one of those theorists at places like the “think tank” at the RAND Corporation after World War II.  I haven’t read Chwe’s book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist, but I cheated by listening to the Freakonomics episode “Jane Austen, Game Theorist.”

Maybe the real Austen fans (and there are a lot of them) wouldn’t agree with Chwe’s premise 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 those fans might agree with his observations about the strategic thinking and manipulations involved in the plotting of Jane’s book dealing with the Bennet family. The Bennets have five unmarried daughters—from oldest to youngest, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia—and Mrs. Bennet is desperate to see them all married.

An example of that game theory manipulation is when Mrs. B. tells her daughter to go to a dinner by horseback rather than by carriage. The girls ask why and she 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 plan works out because while 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.

With Valentine’s Day upon us, perhaps Pride and Prejudice would be a good weekend watch or read as the love story of the courtship between Darcy and Elizabeth is considered by many to be a great one.

Game theory probably wasn’t on Austen’s radar, but her six novels written about 200  years ago might be a good pairing with John nash and others who theorized that jointly strategizing with a partner is the surest foundation for intimacy. You might want to keep that in mind this Valentine’s Day weekend too.

John Nash discovers how all that equilibrium theory works in trying to get a date – in a great scene from A Beautiful Mind (2001)

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