07 May 2013

“Jame Austen, Game Theorist”

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The latest wrinkle in the contemporary Jane Austen boom is described at Science Blog:

Austen’s novels are game theory textbooks,” Michael Suk-Young Chwe writes in “Jane Austen, Game Theorist,” which Princeton University Press published April 21. “She’s trying to get readers to use their higher thinking skills and to think strategically.”

At its most basic level, game theory assesses all the choices available to two (or more) people in a given situation and assigns a numerical value to the benefit each person reaps from each choice. Often, the choice that is most valuable to one player comes at the expense of the other; hence, game theory’s best-known phrase — “zero-sum game.” But just as frequently, there is a choice with unexpected benefits for both players.

“In game theory, you make choices by anticipating the payoffs for others,” Chwe explains.

Chwe argues that Austen explores this concept in all six of her novels, albeit with a different vocabulary than the one used by Nash, von Neumann and other game theory greats some 150 years later. In Austen’s romantic fiction, this type of strategic thinking is described as “penetration,” “foresight” or “a good scheme.”

In “Pride and Prejudice,” for instance, Mrs. Bennet, a mother eager to marry off her five daughters, sends her oldest, Jane, on horseback to a neighboring estate, even though she’s aware a storm is on the way. “Mrs. Bennet knows full well that because of the rain, Jane’s hosts will invite her to spend the night, thus maximizing face time with the eligible bachelor there, Charles Bingley, whom Jane eventually marries,” Chwe said.

In “Persuasion,” the unmarried heroine, Anne Elliot, is approached by Sophia Croft, the sister of a man whose marriage proposal Anne spurned eight years earlier — a decision she still bitterly regrets. Mrs. Croft casually asks Anne whether she’s heard that her brother has married. Anne flinches, thinking the reference is to her former beau, Captain Frederick Wentworth, but relaxes upon learning that Mrs. Croft is actually referring to their younger brother, Edward.

“It’s hard to imagine a better way for Mrs. Croft to gauge Anne’s visceral interest in her unmarried brother,” said Chwe, a UCLA associate professor of political science (whose last name is pronounced like “chess” without the “ss”). The rest of the novel involves schemes to give Captain Wentworth so many signals of Anne’s enduring love that he finds the courage to propose to her again.

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