Austen and Game Theory II

A while back, I commented here regarding an article about the claim by a game theorist, Michael Chwe, who credits Jane Austen with founding game theory.  I found the claim to be thought-provoking, but wondered how one would define game theory in a way that’s broad enough to include literature rather than just specialized economics, but narrow enough to be able to say that one author, specifically, founded the field, and that author was Jane Austen.  The NYTimes article really didn’t give enough information to evaluate Chwe’s claim.

Chwe has since spoken for himself at PBS.  He describes game theory as “the mathematical analysis of strategic thinking.”  While he acknowledges Austen did not use mathematics in her analysis of strategic thinking, he does find in her “theoretical analysis of strategic thinking,” along with “the emphasis on choice” and “the theory of utility.”  Elsewhere in the article he provides a more useful definition of game theory: “the discipline of looking ahead (to what others will do) and reasoning backward (to figure out what you should do in anticipation of what others will do.)”

Chwe acknowledges that game theory can and has been applied to other literature (the Bible, for instance.)  I suppose Austen could be considered more purely game theoretic than, for instance, Shakespeare or the Bible, where strategic reasoning tends to take place to an extent but then be superceded by other aspects of psychology.  To see what Chwe might have found distinctive in Austen, let’s consider where the attempt to treat pre-Austen literature as game theory breaks down.


Contrast Austen with Shakespeare.  Hamlet’s internal psychological battles (“to be or not to be”) are his own, and they ultimately dominate more than his strategic games with the King.  Generally, moreover, Shakespeare will sacrifice a kind of realism and have his characters pursue outlandish strategies, to create dramatic situations that fully reveal character.  Obviously, Jane Austen and the modern economist are aware that people’s selection of goals is pre-rational, but they take goals as given to a greater extent, and focus less on the extent to which other psychological factors get in the way of the pursuit of one’s goals.  People’s driving forces are things like sense, sensibility, pride and prejudice- rather tame and…well, sensible.  Catherine imagines something darker in Northanger Abbey, but Henry Tilney explains that the institutions, laws and culture of England makes such things practically impossible.  There are no ghosts and spirits in Austen or econ, and not many existential leaps of faith. 

In the Merchant of Venice, Shylock the Jew demands his pound of flesh from Antonio, counting on the fact that although the Duke sympathizes strongly with Antonio, he understands that Venice needs to maintain a strong rule of law to keep the trade and investment that is the basis for its prosperity.  Ordinarily, capitalist institutions such as contract law are conducive to the pursuit of wealth, and merchants are focused on the pursuit of wealth, but merchants are human and they have other motives.  They are of course aware that others in society may hate and despise them, as for instance Antonio repeatedly insults Shylock as a moneylender and a Jew.  Shylock can defend capitalist and bourgeoisie morality, and the humanity of Jews, and does, but the pound of flesh is his resort to more drastic measures against Antonio, combining bourgeoisie, game theoretic calculations with aristocratic devotion to revenge and honor. 

Portia intervenes on behalf of Antonio, of course, disguising herself as a lawyer.  She recognizes that Antonio is not himself knowledgeable in law, and if she can first persuade the Duke and, ideally, Shylock himself of her own credibility as a legal authority, and make legalistic arguments that are at least as plausible as Shylock’s, she can carry the day.  She gets Shylock to endorse her legal wisdom by appearing to side with him, as she emphasizes the importance of sticking to the letter of the law rather than allowing emotions to dictate decisions.  She then argues that Shylock can have his pound of flesh, but not any blood, and moreover it has to be exactly one pound.  So far, she has matched her actions to the incentive structures of the Duke and Shylock to produce the desired result, and provided a case study in how judges get what they want under the guise of impartiality.

But at this point, sound strategy would dictate that she leave well enough alone.  She is of course bluffing.  Her decision to seek revenge by demanding Shylock’s life might cause Shylock to challenge her legalistic façade, regain the legal upper-hand and again use his leverage to threaten Venice’s commerce-friendly reputation.  Or it might cause him to become desperate and stab Antonio (he still has the knife, right?)  In her own desire for revenge, she has ceased to think rationally.  However, at a pre-rational level Shylock is rattled; he does not regain the upper hand.  So in this play game theory governs some decisions, but other aspects of psychology are more prominent in other crucial ones.

Hamlet and King Claudio work hard to strategically anticipate each other’s actions, but Hamlet uses the play-within-a-play to strike Claudio at a pre-strategic level: ‘twill catch the conscience of the King, before the King knows what he’s doing.  Hamlet’s leap of faith to believe the ghost really is his father rather than some wicked spirit is obviously pre-rational.  His decision to sword fight Laertes makes no sense from a game theory perspective, and so is obviously driven by non-strategic psychological needs.  He provides a goal-oriented justification for not striking down Claudio while Claudio is apparently praying (he doesn’t want Claudio to go to heaven,) but I suspect he really just doesn’t feel right about it. 

In Midsummer Night’s Dream, shifting romantic urges and the hidden spirit world completely drive action, and only the most rudimentary efforts at pursuit of goals is possible.  In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet tries her best to secure a credible commitment from Romeo, but given the breakneck pace forced on them she has to take him mostly on faith.  The attempt by the priest to arrange things is probably not the soundest elopement strategy one could conceive of; again, Shakespeare sacrifices realism and sound strategy when necessary to fully reveal his characters.


Chwe mentioned Austen’s focus on choice as crucial to his seeing her work as game theory.  A problem with treating Shakespeare, the Bible, or Greek literature as game theory is that destiny dominates these works, meaning our choices matter less.  “There’s a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” said Hamlet.  This is only partly true in Shakespeare, certainly less true in him than in the Iliad or Oedipus, but the fact that his characters partly believe it is true itself shapes their choices, away from game theory types of strategy. 

As for the Bible, Old Testament or New, God’s plan dominates, and the human choice that matters is whether to have faith.  Characters can only to a very small extent practice game theory on God.  Jacob is the only character I can think of who makes any attempt to extract credible commitments from God.  There is no place for strategic thinking in Abraham’s binding of Isaac, or Adam and Eve’s eating the fruit, or Noah building the ark.  These stories are if anything a precursor to existentialism, as Kierkegaard thought.  There is strategic thinking in relationships between humans (how can I get the birth right, how can I get out of this prison, what should Egypt’s agricultural policy be, how can I contain Hebrew population growth, how can I get the birth right, how can I have sex with Bathsheba, etc.), and it does matter, but man’s strategic relationship with man is much less fully developed than man’s relationship with God.

Fatalism is weakening in Shakespeare compared with in ancient Greece, but it is weakened further by time of the Enlightenment and Austen’s writing, as I read the situation.  Now, obviously even once we have eliminated or weakened Destiny, there are limits to how much we can control with our choices.  Chwe explains that economics expects firms to calculate one another’s actions when they aren’t in an oligopoly situation- there is simply a market price that they must accept, reflecting diffuse information that nobody could calculate.  The point is, Austen focuses her attention on the limits within which choices do matter.  Chwe cites Fanny’s rejection of Henry Crawford, against her uncle’s wishes.  It’s eighteen-hundred-something, and if Fanny absolutely refuses to marry Henry Crawford, she just isn’t going to marry him.  Juliet Capulet didn’t feel she was in that position.  It takes heroic firmness for Fanny to make her stand, but not the kind of desperate measures that left things in the hands of destiny and fate in Shakespeare.


In my comments on the NYT article on Chwe on Austen on game theory, I wrote “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.’”  In the PBS peace, he likens this to dominant companies’ dismissing “disruptive potential” of competitors.  He also likens it to what he says is U.S. failure to anticipate the Iraqi insurgency, when Iraq’s tactics were obviously the correct response to superior U.S. firepower; and to the humanities establishment dismissing efforts to economically analyze literature.

In my previous piece on Chwe I suggested Henry Tilney’s turning Catherine Moreland out of his house as an instance of cluelessness, and in his PBS piece Chwe cites this.  (There’s much more subtle cluelessness in Northanger Abbey, though- see my previous post.)

In Sense and Sensibility, Chwe sees Marianne Dashwood as deliberately bringing about her illness in order to get Willoughby to explain his actions and confess his love for her (even though his lack of integrity means she no longer wants to marry him, she cannot be satisfied without an explanation.)  Don’t know what I think about that.


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