Members Meeting - Sept 17 2016

Jane Austen: Game Theorist

After a long summer with no JASNA meetings it was wonderful to be back in company with our friendly group. For this meeting, Judith shared with us the insights of Michael Suk-Young Chwe in his book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist.

Game Theory is a theory of strategic thinking. Chwe argues that, though the Theory was not officially defined until 1944, Jane Austen was a master game theorist and her works have contributed to game theory itself. Game Theory is defined as follows: "human interactions are a series of moves and countermoves aimed at maximum gain". Game Theory involves a strategist or game player, a choice that the game player must make, a preference, and a revealed preference. In Jane Austen's works, the choice is often whether or whom to marry, and the preference is the sorting through a flood of emotions to make a decision.


As a prime example of the exercise of choice, Elizabeth Bennet (PP) radically states to Lady Catherine that she will act in the way that in her opinion will most secure her own happiness. This is quite at odds with a character such as Mary Musgrove (P) who at one point stated that she wanted to have no opinion which would be disagreeable or inconvenient to her family. To illustrate preference, we can view Catherine Morland (NA) who examines a mixture of feelings to resolve into a single feeling. Revealed preference can be shown in Jane Bennet's (PP) dilemma to choose between accepting Mr. Bingley, causing herself great happiness but causing unhappiness to her would be sisters-in-law, and rejecting Mr. Bingley at the cost of great personal unhappiness.

One of the primary indicators of strategists in Jane Austen's works is the maturing of a character by having to make decisions in demanding situations, such as the case with Catherine Morland (NA), Marianne Dashwood (SS) and Elinor Dashwood (SS). In Mansfield Park, Fanny learns to trust 'the voice within herself' and matures in this way.


Pitfalls in Game Theory include poor strategic thinkers, less rational decisions, and self-superiority. Some of the classic examples of poor strategic thinker include Mr. Collings (PP), Mrs. Jennings (SS), Sir John Dashwood (SS), Caroline Bingley (PP), and Mrs. Elton (E). These characters all lack some element of a strategist either in their selfish manipulations (Caroline Bingley), their misunderstandings of other characters (Mrs. Elton), or their sheer cluelessness (Mr. Collins). Less rational decisions can be caused by things such as bad habits as in John Willoughby's idleness (SS), rules as in Elinor's (SS) self-destructive decision to protect Lucy Steele's confidence, social factors as in Mr. Collin's (PP) obsequiousness, or excessive emotions as in Marianne's (SS) pursuit of Mr. Willoughby.

Though generally advantageous, some disadvantages of strategic thinking include interference, becoming overburdened, having a complicated moral life, an enlarged scope of regret, and possibly being less attractive. Jane Austen contributed to Game Theory by recognizing the elements of social context and cluelessness. 

Chwe defines cluelessness as the failure to understand others.

  • linear thought

  • lack of social experience

  • using the self as the universal example

  • disregard of inferiors, and

  • manipulation

After she presented the basics of Chwe's book, Judith invited us to form into four groups. Following a brief break for tea, each group was given a question to ponder some of the novels plot points. 

  • What if John had allowed the Dashwoods to remain at home? (SS)

  • What if Harriett had accepted Mr. Martin immediately? (E)

  • What if Lydia had not eloped? (PP)

  • What if Anne Elliott had maintained a correspondence with Captain Wentworth? (P)

Though varied in our suppositions, it became quite clear that without these elements in the novels, the stories would have completely unravelled. The discussion illustrated Austen's true mastery of game theory Yet another reason why Jane Austen reigns supreme!

Thank you, Judith, for presenting this thought provoking book!