An academic named Michael Chwe has argued that Jane Austen is the founder of game theory. His claim is ambitious, according to the New York Times: “Mr. Chwe argues that Austen isn’t merely fodder for game-theoretical analysis, but an unacknowledged founder of the discipline itself.” But if we’re going to date game theory to some time before it became a formal discipline, why stop with Austen? Why not turn to Shakespeare, or Homer, or Hobbes, or Machiavelli, or Moses, or…The Times article at least doesn’t make clear Chwe’s criteria for distinguishing game theory from not-game-theory.
Chwe finds in Austen a concept of “cluelessness,” which he thinks should be part of game theory. Rather than treating players as equally rational, cluelessness analysis allows one player to make strategic mistakes because, from a position of social dominance, one party “may not realize it even needs to think strategically.” He uses as an example the Lade Catherine de Bourgh’s demand that Elizabeth promise not to marry 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.” Catherine’s strategic blunder is obvious, and certainly results from overconfidence due to her social position, but there is also a lot that she can only guess at (how thoroughly has Elizabeth rejected Darcy up to this point, for instance.)
And I don’t know that I see any strategic brilliance on Elizabeth’s part here that forced the error. Obviously she wasn’t going to, when asked, promise not to marry Darcy, but as far as I can tell her only goal with Lady Catherine is to win the conversation….
In Northanger Abbey I see some more interesting game theory action. Spoiler Alert!!! Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland meet at a dance, but Henry initially has no particular interest in her. He therefore has nothing to lose and can be his incomparable self, rather than going with a conventional approach. Though most girls would not have taken a fancy to him, Catherine does. Seeing that she likes him makes him like her, probably much more than he would a girl who liked him when he used a more risk-averse approach.
Catherine and Henry both deploy Henry’s sister Eleanor effectively. Catherine, an unsophisticated girl, sensibly strikes up a friendship with Eleanor in hopes of getting closer to Henry. She does not, however, set out signal feelings of affection for Henry for her to relay. Nevertheless she naively conveys her feelings through the things she says and the questions she asks.* Acting like she loves him and trying to act like she loves him communicate the same essential point. Henry uses Eleanor as a kind of active chaperone, or rather Eleanor causes herself to be used as such- she is a supporting character but by nature an independent actor. They form a kind of cooperative partnership; really, together with Catherine they make a three-person partnership more or less consciously devoted to deepening Catherine’s and Henry’s relationship. Having Eleanor there to interpret for him allows Henry to continue taking risks he might otherwise hesitate to take with his unconventional wit. Henry also reads Catherine well, and so is able to recognize what will make her happy.
John Thorpe employs strategies in his pursuit of Catherine and efforts to divide her from Henry, so does not fit Chwe’s definition of cluelessness. The source of his overconfidence is instead in his belief that this very strategic ability, and superiority over Catherine in social knowledge, will allow him to manipulate her. Her very artlessness enables her not to worry about certain conventions and thus remove obstacles, in the process further demonstrating attractive qualities to Henry. When Henry’s father turns against Catherine, this greatly speeds the engagement, a more straightforward form of cluelessness.
John’s sister Isabella plays the game with seeming skill, but her schemes also backfire. She ensnares Catherine’s brother James in an engagement but then finds out he isn’t as rich as she thought. She dumps him for Henry and Eleanor’s unprincipled older brother, whose name I forget, but he in turn dumps her. For all her skills, she has overreached- Henry had supposed she was too crafty to dump James until she had credible commitments from his brother, but this was not so. She assumed she could fall back on James, using as bridges Catherine (whom she befriended early) and her own brother John, James’s best friend. Her letter to Catherine is a masterpiece of deception, but her strategy cluelessly underestimated Catherine, who is not taken in for an instant. John tries to persuade James, but they have cluelessly underestimated him, too.
* She does seem to want Catherine to convey that she didn’t try to snub Henry at the second dance they were both at, that she really was previously engaged. She does not realize that the fact that she wants this information conveyed gives Eleanor further information.