By Olivia Zhu
“It is a great deal better to choose than to be chosen.” –Jane Austen, in Emma.
Jane Austen — novelist, romantic, and social critic — can now add another title to her repertoire: game theorist.
This role has been bestowed upon her by Michael Chwe, a game theorist in the Department of Political Science at UCLA and author of the book Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Chwe claims that Austen acts as a social scientist by setting up a theoretical framework for game theory in her novels. In his talk to a lively crowd well-versed in Austen’s works on March 25th, Chwe explained Austen’s uncanny emphasis on choice, preference, and strategic thinking.
According to Chwe, Austen does not attribute actions to random variables, but rather to careful consideration of all alternatives. For example, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park chooses to refuse Henry Crawford’s offer of marriage after weighing her options; she does so entirely out of personal preference. Similarly, a major tenet in game theory is that the individual chooses what she wants to do without much consideration past her own wishes. Chwe said that Austen places a criticism on game theory here, when Fanny’s uncle, Sir Thomas, chastises Fanny being selfish instead of marrying Henry for the family’s financial security.
Chwe also introduced the game theory concept commensurability, in which negative factors are literally subtracted from positive factors in a decision to produce a single number of utility. He stated that Austen’s language, including phrases such as “finely checkered” happiness, “two
pleasures, however unlike in kind,” and “on the whole, no cause to repine,” clearly illustrate Austen’s intent to quantify emotions for commensurability.
Finally, Chwe pointed out the bounty of strategic thinking, another element of game theory, present in Austen’s novels. Austen does not portray calculation as unnatural or cold, he says. She mentions the word “scheme” 126 times, “contrive” 54 times, “foresight” 49 times, and “calculate” 41 times. Her strong, female characters often pride themselves on their ability to anticipate others’ actions.
Chwe concluded that though there is no direct evidence that Austen infused game theory into her novels, she clearly explores the concept of choice in her work.