Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Book Review | Jane Austen, Game Theorist

'Jane Austen, Game Theorist', by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, delightfully blends two very different subjects: game theory and literature

What could possibly link women trying to understand their interpersonal relationships and a tool developed by Cold Warriors trying to understand arcane details of Soviet Nuclear strategy? A lot. Conceived as a game theoretic study of Jane Austen’s six novels, Jane Austen, Game Theorist, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, a professor of political science at the University of California Los Angeles, goes much beyond its seeming ambit and blends two very different subjects—game theory and literature—delightfully.

Apart from a gifted reading of these novels—and a stunning portrayal of the strategic thinking abilities of their heroines—the author has done two more things. First, he has pre-dated key concepts in game theory by more than a century. The usual origin of the subject is dated to the 1940s, specifically to key mathematics papers by John von Neumann and John Nash Jr. Later research showed that similar ideas had been explored in the 19th century by French mathematician, Antoine Augustin Cournot. Cournot’s model of oligopoly is well known today. A careful reading of Austen shows that she thought exactly along Cournot-Nash lines minus the mathematical apparatus. The key to any strategic situation—one with more than two people with defined actions, preferences and payoffs—involves understanding the interplay of these elements. For example, when Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy interact with each other in Pride and Prejudice, their first meeting goes off badly. Why? Both come with preconceived ideas and do not examine each others’ preferences. Soon enough they do and an Austenesque happy ending results. This marks it out as a novel where the protagonists have relatively well-developed strategic sense and from a game theoretic perspective bit uninteresting. What stands out in Suk-Young’s study is his gradation of Austen’s six novels in this respect: from the relatively simple Pride and Prejudice to Emma where the over-developed strategic sense of Emma Woodhouse forces a re-learning of another kind. The median point probably is Northanger Abbey. At 10, the protagonist, Catherine Morland loves boys plays and was “noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness". At 14, she loves “cricket, baseball, riding on horseback and running about the country". This carefree creature cannot be expected to think strategically, leave alone peer into other minds. By the end, she has done all that and more, making Northanger Abbey a good example of strategic learning.

What makes the book stand out as an interesting piece of game theory literature is Suk-Young’s analysis of “cluelessness". Now in most strategic situations—at least in terms of describing them as models—the strategies/actions, preferences and payoffs of each player are known to all the players. Very often, in the real world, this is not true. Some of this information may either be missing or may not be known to all the participants. Then, the situation is modelled as a game of incomplete information. But in all cases, it is assumed that players are rational. But what if there are lapses from rationality? Say, if the individuals are simply lazy. Any formal theorist will deny this. In the model world this does not happen. That is a key limitation in applying game theory to real-world situations: either the models are so simple as to defy belief or they are so sophisticated that only some, mathematically well-trained, persons can understand them.

Is there room for middle-ground? There is as Jane Austen, Game Theorist shows in a very interesting fashion. Reading Austen’s novels, the author arrives at five, very human, explanations for cluelessness. These have plausibility. To pick one explanation, often the gap in social status between individuals precludes their ability to anticipate each other. In Austen’s novels, the consequences are rather harmless; in the real world, they can be devastating. Suk-Young gives the example of the late Robert McNamara, the US defence secretary during the Vietnam War. McNamara’s systematically misread North Vietnamese strategies and choices because he could not “get inside their (Vietnamese) skins and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their desires and their actions…" (p213). McNamara was simply unable to equate the US with backward Vietnam. He understood that decades later after his country underwent a disastrous military defeat.

It will not be an exaggeration to say that after Thomas Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict, this is one book that imparts realism to game theory again.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint.

Comment at