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Game Theory in Literature

I’ve come across many articles that discuss a book written by Michael Chwe, “Jane Austen, Game Theorist.”  I found this interesting because this summer I finally read “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen.  I wanted to see why this particular professor from UCLA argued that Jane Austen had an understanding of game theory before it was introduced by von Neumann in 1944.  For those who don’t know, “Pride and Prejudice” is a beautifully written novel that analyzes social background, upbringing, morality, education, etc. and their effects on marriage.  I can see how game theory applies to this book by observing the relationship between the behaviors of Mrs. Bennet’s daughters and the people they ended up marrying.  Lydia, the youngest daughter, who gave herself away easily to any man who was interested in her, married an irresponsible playboy.  Jane, who kept her feelings hidden, and moderately played the game, married a very eligible bachelor.  Finally, Elizabeth, who put a lot of thought in evaluating  her suitors, and therefore played the game to a severe degree, married the wealthy and honorable, Mr. Darcy.  One instance of game theory that comes to mind is when Mrs. Bennet sends her oldest daughter to Mr. Bingley’s house on horse, knowing that it is about to storm, so that Jane would have to spend the night at Mr. Bingley’s house.  This maximizes the time Mr. Bingley and Jane share and eventually leads to their marriage.

Chwe considers Jane Austen a game theorist because she believes that people make choices based on their understanding of costs and benefits.  He illustrates this through advice character Elizabeth Bennet gives to her sister Jane on marrying Mr. Bingley, even though his sisters dislike Jane: “If, upon mature deliberation, you find that the misery of disobliging his two sisters is more than equivalent to the happiness of being his wife, I advise you by all means to refuse him.”

In modern society, courtship situations follows similar patterns to those in Austen’s books.  The article brings up an interesting study about how “a man’s understanding of a woman’s interest in having sex after, for example, being kissed by her, was more optimistic than what women reported as having intended by a kiss.” On the other hand, “Women’s understanding of a man’s interest in a committed relationship after receiving expensive jewelry from him, was more skeptical than what men reported as having intended by giving expensive jewelry.”  The result of this misunderstanding is that men become over-optimistic since they have more to lose from underestimating a women’s sexual interest (since they won’t mate), and women are more skeptical because they have more to lose from overestimating a man’s commitment (since the man will lose interest).  These are the dominant strategies for both parties, and actually surprising leads to social benefits because it will make men worker harder to shatter a woman’s skepticism about his commitment, which creates more stable relationships.


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