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Jane Austen, Game Theorist

It should come as no surprise that game theory, or the study of decision-making in interactions with rational players, has applications in the romantic genre. People wonder how they can maximize their outcomes with romantic partners, often strategizing and manipulating.

Enter Jane Austen. One of literature’s most beloved authors, famous for her commentaries on high-society in 19th century England. UCLA Professor Michael Chwe first argued that Jane Austen actually pioneered the study of game theory long before it was applied to foreign policy and gambling games in the 1950s. He discovered this connection while watching Clueless, a 90’s movie based on Austen’s novel, Emma.  Chwe found that Austen’s characters in their self-interested pursuits often used game theory tactics.

A New Times profile on Chwe offers an example:

“Take the scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands that Elizabeth Bennet promise not to marry Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth refuses to promise, and Lady Catherine repeats this to Mr. Darcy as an example of her insolence — not realizing that she is helping Elizabeth indirectly signal to Mr. Darcy that she is still interested.”

Here, Elizabeth is faced with two options. She could either tell Catherine that she will or will not keep that promise. Chwe would argue that she considers the possible payoffs and ultimately decides that saying that she will not keep that promise, although it will immediately upset Catherine, she predicts that Catherine will let Darcy know of this, thereby signaling to Darcy that Elizabeth is still interested. Chwe would say its more complicated than just Elizabeth speaking her truth, but actually a strategic play.

Chwe further establishes an appreciation for Austen, saying that her insights on games actually extend past what other contemporary game theorists have postulated. The concept that he mentioned, in particular, is what he calls ‘cluelessness’. In the above example, Catherine is in a position of higher status than Elizabeth. This causes Catherine to underestimate the manipulation that Elizabeth executes. Catherine’s inability to anticipate Elizabeth’s manipulation based on their class-enforced power dynamic makes Catherine a ‘clueless’ player.


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