Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Jane Austen, Game Theorist


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.


The idea for this book started when I found Flossie and the Fox (McKissack 1986) for my children at a garage sale. For years I used the story of Flossie as an example in my graduate game theory classes but never found a place for it in my writing. The opportunity came when I was asked to prepare a paper for a conference on “Rational Choice Theory and the Humanities.” I found similar folktales and began to notice “folk game theory” in movies I watched together with my children. Watching Jane Austen adaptations led to reading her novels. Thus this book arose out of experiences with my children Hanyu and Hana. Now as they are almost grown I hope that they will still want to read books and watch movies with their father.

The “Rational Choice Theory and the Humanities” conference was held at Stanford University in April 2005, and I am indebted to the organizer, David Palumbo-Liu, and conference participants. Some of the material in the paper I wrote for the conference (Chwe 2009) appears again here. I am also indebted to participants in presentations I gave in December 2005 at the National Taiwan University, in April 2010 at the Juan March Institute and the UCLA Marschak Colloquium, in May 2011 at Yale University, and in June 2011 at the University of Oxford and the Stockholm School of Economics. Discussions continue at janeaustengametheorist.com.

Writing a book invariably exposes one to undeserved generosity. More than once, I have drafted what seems like a delightfully original phrase only to discover it in an email received earlier from a friend. The term “folk game theory” has also been independently coined in lectures by Vince Crawford and in a recent paper by Crawford, Costa-Gomes, and Iriberri (2010). Properly acknowledging the contributions of my friends and colleagues is almost impossible, but I will try. Specifically (in reverse alphabetical order), Guenter Treitel, Laura Rosenthal, Dick Rosecrance, Anne Mellor, Avinash Dixit, Vince Crawford, Tyler Cowen, Steve Brams, and Pippa Abston read the entire first draft and offered very helpful comments. Peyton Young, Giulia Sissa, Ignacio Sanchez-Cuenca, Valeria Pizzini-Gambetta, Rohit Parikh, Russ Mardon, and Neal Beck gave me great suggestions. The comments of anonymous referees improved the book, especially its overall organization, a lot. I am indebted. Chuck Myers and Peter Dougherty at Princeton University Press have always been great. Linda Truilo’s care as copyeditor is very much appreciated.

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