Jane Austen: a better game theorist than a novelist

Here is a confession, one that will surely rank for unpopularity with my post about how much I dislike the Kindle. I really dislike Jane Austen’s novels. This is only partly because they were force-fed to me at school, along with Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, other unfavourite authors of mine. It’s also because who cares about who gets married to whom? I could never be bothered, and indeed the novels have all merged into one general pink romantic mush in my memory. Give me Eliot or Gissing or Zola or Hugo.

There, confession made. So it was with some trepidation that I started reading Michael Chwe’s Jane Austen: Game Theorist, despite the absolutely glowing reviews it’s been receiving (see for example these articles in the New York Times and The Washington Monthly). My Austen-antipathy notwithstanding, I thought it very good indeed. The early and later chapters are superb, giving other literary examples such as Shakespeare and African-American folktales, and one can easily extract the argument from the Austen-focused chapters in the middle while skipping details about the various tedious marriage plots.

The book hits several targets. It demystifies game theory, explaining it as a systematic way of thinking about strategic behaviour; that is, about choosing actions based on thinking through other people’s likely reactions. It defends game theory against the (silly but all-too-common) accusation that people don’t behave rationally and game theory is therefore a tool of neo-liberal economic imperialism. The first part of this assertion is obviously true, but – as the book demonstrates – strategic thinking is a useful tool long pre-dating modern neoclassical economics. Indeed, one of Chwe’s other aims is to support his argument that Jane Austen was explicitly writing about the difference between people who think strategically and those who don’t.

The most interesting part of the book for me was about why, indeed, there are people who do not strategise – about ‘cluelessness’, as he names it, borrowing from the movie. For instance, Chwe points out that in folk tales as in Austen, high-status people are often ‘clueless’ and therefore easily tricked by subordinates whom they cannot imagine think more strategically than they do. He finds five explanations in the Austen novels:

- some people aren’t naturally adept at it, and it’s harder work for the brain than not being strategic

- sometimes the social or cultural distance is too great for people to think through the likely reaction of another (Chwe gives another example of this in the context of US army checkpoints in Iraq)

- some people are too self-focused and assume others are just like themselves

- the fourth reason is status: to admit that a lower status person can strategise, or to strategise about them as an equal, is actually to undermine one’s superior status

- finally, some people assume they don’t need to think about another person’s preferences because they can change them

The book also adds some supplementary explanations for ‘cluelessness’. For example, he argues that the status-related reason is self-reinforcing because naturally clueless people will gravitate towards status-oriented situations, the hierarchy removing the need to be strategic about others. “In other words, stereotypically ‘male’ organizations like the military might be more hierarchical and status-oriented, with each person given an explicit rank, not because men love hierarchy but because their relative cluelessness requires that every social interaction have explicitly defined roles and rules.”

Another reason for adopting overtly ‘clueless behaviour’ is that it can be a good commitment device – for instance, if two cars are approaching head-on, the driver who does worry about the other’s reaction will be the one who gives way, while the one who fails to make eye contact will sail on. Chwe also suggests that thinking strategically involves empathy towards others, which some social superiors will want to avoid (eg. antebellum slaveowners), or involves actually envisioning being in their bodies to understand how they might think or feel. Interestingly, he also points out that a failure to be strategic is often linked with characteristics often found in autistic people, such as literal-mindedness, and a weak ‘theory of mind’.

All of these reasons ring very true – it has often amazed me how unstrategic most people are, especially in business. It is harder, a bit, to think about how other people will react to your actions and choices, but not that hard. Jane Austen, Game Theorist should join the list of strategic classics like The Art of War, or the good how-to game theory guides like Dixit and Nalebuff’s Thinking Strategically, on the shelf of everybody who wants to be effective in life.

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12 thoughts on “Jane Austen: a better game theorist than a novelist

  1. Mr Chwe may owe you a sale but….

    You refer to “cluelessness” in Jane Austen and folk tales, and how the high status are tricked by their subordinates, and speculate why this might happen. All the reason you cite sound sensible. But might it be because these are stories? And a dim Jeeves being tricked by a crafty Wooster wouldn’t be a good story.

    And while it might be difficult or hard work for the high status to understand the interests of others, they have a big incentive to do so, as they need to trick so many people to keep their status. See various Chris Dillow posts on capitalists/managerialists creating false consciousness.

    Not meant as a criticism of an interesting post.

    • True, it does make for a better story.

      But maybe that’s because in real life one sees so many examples of bosses being fooled by various sycophants and/or mavericks? Have you never wondered how a superior at work could fall for something so obvious (whatever it might be?)

      • “Have you never wondered how a superior at work could fall for something so obvious (whatever it might be?)”

        Yes, but what of large numbers of employees falling for the “work hard and one day all this will be yours/you’ll be promoted/be a partner” line? Or “stuff your pension with Enron shares, what could go wrong?”

        Just as those with high status know they are there through merit, it’s a great comfort for us minions to know we are cleverer than the buffoons in charge. Quite how they stay in charge *and* fail to spot my talent is beyond me…

  2. One thing little known is the nature of Hampshire etc. society in that period. Who was who, who they were connected to and all the implications. Putting her into context in this is intriguing. What is fascinating is not just what she put in but what she left out. Equally, the power and family “games” they engaged in. One man she would have known about was involved in torching Washington DC in 1814 reducing the Library of Congress to ashes as well.

  3. Thank God. I thought I was the only middle class person in England who didn’t like Jane Austin.
    Since I also have trouble thinking strategically I will have to read these other books instead of Pride & Prejudice. Hooray!

  4. In studies of the ability to judge the emotions of other people, lower-class individuals tend to be better: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/21/11/1716.abstract

    The explanation given is that lower-class people are more likely to have their outcomes shaped by the upper-class than the other way around. The lack of attention and empathy from the upper-class might just be a useful heuristic for where their attention should be focused. Unfortunately for them (as for most other heuristics) it’s not perfect.

    • Jason, thank you. I happen to have personal and professional interest in trying to assess others’ reactions, and other people’s assessments of still others’ reactions, so that’s interesting.

    • Hi Jason—I cite that paper (by Kraus, Cote, and Keltner) in the book! Thanks everyone for your interest (and thanks Diane for the review)! Michael

      • I also dislike the Kindle, by the way. Flipping through pages is way too slow, and when you go back to where you were originally, because the text repaginates, the position of the words on the page changes! Quite annoying.

  5. Pingback: Cluelessness - Evolving Economics