What Can Novels Teach Us?

Is it worthwhile for a social scientist to read fiction? What can novels teach us about human behavior? This post summarizes the work of several authors who would answer the first question with a resounding “yes,” and describes their arguments about how novels help us understand social behavior.

Most recently I had the pleasure of reading Michal Suk-Young Chwe‘s new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Austen herself likely would have preferred the term “imaginist,” which is how the title character in Emma describes herself, referring to her strategic thinking abilities. Chwe’s argument in the book is that Austen is systematically analyzing strategic thinking through her novels. Austen certainly understood that novels could help teach social behavior: she writes in Northanger Abbey that novels contain “the most thorough knowledge of human nature [and] the happiest delineation of its varieties.” On Wednesday we will take a more detailed look at Chwe’s argument. In the meantime you can find a presentation summarizing the book here.

Austen would be in good company with Ariel Rubinstein. The central thesis of his recent book, Economic Fables, is straightforward: “Economic models are not more, but also not less, than stories–fables.” (You can read the book for free here, or see Ariel explain the motivation behind the book in this video.) Rubinstein’s view is actually the converse of Austen’s: he is not arguing that works of fiction are illustrative of human behavior, but that many social science models are themselves useful fictions. (Ed Leamer has advanced a similar view with a more practical twist in his book, Macroeconomic Patterns and Stories.)

Tyler Cowen helps to identify the key differences and similarities between models and novels in his paper, “Is a Novel a Model?” Here is the abstract:

I defend the relevance of fiction for social science investigation. Novels can be useful for making some economic approaches — such as behavioral economics or signaling theory — more plausible. Novels are more like models than is commonly believed. Some novels present verbal models of reality. I interpret other novels as a kind of simulation, akin to how simulations are used in economics. Economics can, and has, profited from the insights contained in novels. Nonetheless, while novels and models lie along a common spectrum, they differ in many particulars. I attempt a partial account of why we
sometimes look to models for understanding, and other times look to novels.

This interview with Tyler contains a summary of his perspective on novels and much more.

Cowen’s former GMU Economics colleague Russ Roberts also agrees that novels are useful for understanding social behavior–so much so that he has written three of them. Each of the novels illustrates one main economic lesson, and all of them support the idea of free markets for solving problems. Roberts interviewed Rubinstein the Econtalk podcast, in which they discuss some of the ideas that led to Rubinstein’s new book.

Overall this attention to useful fictions is a positive development for social science. Novels can help reach a much wider audience than journal articles and many nonfiction books. One danger–which we are far from now but still exists–is that we value the elegance of the novel itself (the language it uses) rather than the lessons it teaches. Another downside is that it is difficult to convey the policy relevance of a novel. Nevertheless, teaching lessons about human behavior in an enjoyable and memorable form is a huge step forward from most contemporary social science.

4 thoughts on “What Can Novels Teach Us?

  1. adagbonyin efeosa funmilayo

    wen we talk about novels.the writers av explicit idea when they write.some novels are based on historical event,some inmplant economic ideas into us,some concerns emotion and some deals with individual life.ín other words political science check into all this affair.´moreover as scientist we need to be constantly updated not neccesaryly day to day bt try to keep in check tins around us as persons.constant reading improve óur use of english.which is neccesary.í think the constant reading of novels helps us a lot

  2. Pingback: Five Lessons on Strategic Thinking from Jane Austen | You Study Politics, Right?

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