On Monday I mentioned Michael Suk-Young Chwe‘s new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist. In this post we take a deeper look at Chwe’s argument: that Jane Austen was teaching lessons about strategic thinking through her novels in what he calls “folk game theory.” We will do that by going through chapters nine and ten in which Chwe examines five lessons on strategic thinking found in Austen’s six novels. I will focus here on examples from Pride and Prejudice as a way of narrowing the field and because it is probably the most popular of the six; page numbers refer to Chwe’s book.
1. Strategic thinking can lead to strong partnerships
One of Chwe’s goals in his book is to help dispel the notion that game theory is strictly atomistic. Austen does a good job of this because some of the strongest couples in her novels result from two characters jointly strategizing. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are first in conflict because they are strategizing differently (Mr. Darcy cannot imagine Elizabeth turning down his proposal of marriage; p. 146). Austen is shows the importance of choice and in particular the choice of a woman to accept to reject a proposal. As they encounter other strategic situations throughout the novel, though, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy gradually establish a pattern of working together. By learning how the other thinks, they engage in what for Austen is the height of intimacy. This type of joint strategizing can also strengthen female friendships (for Austen females are the more strategic of the two genders; p. 151).
2. You can strategically manipulate yourself
Another matter of choice–again, a primary theme in Austen’s work–is the decision to engage in “self-management” (156). An individual can have multiple “selves,” some of which are more in line with her long-term goals than others. Temperament alone is not sufficient to maintain commitment to your long-term interests, so you must allow your more rational self to override your short-term interests. This strategy can also be used to work against your own biases if you are aware of them (157-8). Mr. Darcy argues in a letter to Elizabeth that he was aware of his bias and was able to avoid letting it influence him: “That I was desirous of believing her indifferent is certain,–but I will venture to say that my investigations and decisions are not usually influence by my hopes or fears.–I did not believe her indifferent because I wished it.”
3. Preferences can be changed
Most social science models take preferences as given, but Austen is interested in how they can be shaped. One mechanism for changing preferences is gratitude (158-9). When Elizabeth learns that Mr. Darcy helped support the marriage between her sister Lydia and Wickham she becomes much more open to the idea of a relationship with him (telling him that “her sentiments had undergone so material a change… as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances”). Love in Austen’s novels is a coordination problem, and being in love can also affect individuals’ preferences (160). A third factor that influences preferences is reference dependence: to what baseline are you comparing your current options (161-2).
4. Commitment requires strategic thinking
As discussed above, understanding how someone makes decisions–their preferences and strategies–is for Austen the basis of intimacy. By understanding another, you can view subsequent choices that might otherwise seem inconsistent as flowing from the same strategic point of view. This allows you to understand their goals and recognize their commitments (169). It also helps you to predict how they will react in changing circumstances, allowing you to assess whether and how committed they are to you.
5. Strategic thinking has its disadvantages
This final lesson is truly an innovation on Austen’s part, since contemporary game theory does not often consider downsides to rational thinking. Several complications may arise if you are known to be a strategic thinker. First, others might rely on you too heavily to make decisions for them (172). It may also lead to moral complications if others ask you to engage in strategic actions on their behalf, such as deception. Others might be less willing to help you if they know you are thinking strategically (173). If they view you as always looking for your own most preferred outcome, they may also become less trusting (175-6).
Through these lessons we can see that the manner in which an individual engages in strategic thinking can either strengthen or weaken her social interactions. Austen’s “folk game theory” helped to teach a disadvantaged social class how to outthink their counterparts and end up in more desirable circumstances. She also showed that game theory need not be individualistic, and how strategic thinking can be used to help others. If you enjoyed this post, there is much more to learn from Austen and Chwe does a great job of drawing out those lessons from all six of her novels. One of the biggest lessons in Austen’s novels–that others think differently from you–is still valuable today.