Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jane Austen and Game Theory

I was astounded when I came across the title to this paper that ties Jane Austen, a contemporary romance novelist of her times, with Game Theory. I would never have put those two, in my mind, mutually exclusive facets of academia in the same sentence together, much less in anything that inextricably connects the two.

Game Theory is a branch of applied mathematics used, most notably by economists and political science theorists, to capture behavior in strategic situations, in which an individual's success in making choices depends on the choices of others. Initially developed to analyze competitions in which one individual does better at another's expense (zero sum games), the application of the theory is to find equilibria in these games.

Associate professor at UCLA, Michael Chwe, gave a talk on April 23, 2010 on how Jane Austen used the principles of strategic thinking in her novels long before Game Theory was developed. Here's the abstract of his talk:

'People have analyzed strategic thinking long before the academic field of game theory started in the 1950s. I argue that Jane Austen's six novels, among the most widely beloved in the English language, can be understood as a systematic analysis of strategic thinking. Austen's novels do not simply provide interesting "case material" for the game theorist to analyze, but are themselves very ambitious and wide-ranging theoretically, providing insights not yet superseded by modern social science. Austen prizes individual choice and argues that social norms against "selfishness" can simply be a way to control women. Like a rational choice theorist, Austen lauds stable, complete preferences but also examines how they can change according to the social context. People who are good at strategic thinking have "penetration" and succeed by understanding the preferences and choices of others. Austen thoughtfully considers competing models of human action, including those based on emotion, instinct, habit, rules, and social embeddedness, but consistently favors rational choice. Austen carefully distinguishes strategic thinking from concepts often confused with it, such as selfishness, economistic values, and competition. Far from assuming that strategic thinking assumes atomistic individuality, for Austen strategic partnership is the surest foundation for intimacy and marriage. Austen critically looks at how strategic thinking, usually so useful, can itself have disadvantages, and also why high-status people are often clueless about the strategicness of lower-status people.'

Pretty zany, eh?


Diane Gaston said...

I'm blown away, Keira!!! what a find.

Keira Soleore said...

Yeah, who'd've thunk?!