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Jane Austen, Game Theorist [Hardcover]

Michael Suk-Young Chwe

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Book Description

21 April 2013

Game theory--the study of how people make choices while interacting with others--is one of the most popular technical approaches in social science today. But as Michael Chwe reveals in his insightful new book, Jane Austen explored game theory's core ideas in her six novels roughly two hundred years ago. Jane Austen, Game Theorist shows how this beloved writer theorized choice and preferences, prized strategic thinking, argued that jointly strategizing with a partner is the surest foundation for intimacy, and analyzed why superiors are often strategically clueless about inferiors. With a diverse range of literature and folktales, this book illustrates the wide relevance of game theory and how, fundamentally, we are all strategic thinkers.

Although game theory's mathematical development began in the Cold War 1950s, Chwe finds that game theory has earlier subversive historical roots in Austen's novels and in "folk game theory" traditions, including African American folktales. Chwe makes the case that these literary forebears are game theory's true scientific predecessors. He considers how Austen in particular analyzed "cluelessness"--the conspicuous absence of strategic thinking--and how her sharp observations apply to a variety of situations, including U.S. military blunders in Iraq and Vietnam.

Jane Austen, Game Theorist brings together the study of literature and social science in an original and surprising way.

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"Jane Austen, Game Theorist . . . is more than the larky scholarly equivalent of 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.'. . . Mr. Chwe argues that Austen isn't merely fodder for game-theoretical analysis, but an unacknowledged founder of the discipline itself: a kind of Empire-waisted version of the mathematician and cold war thinker John von Neumann, ruthlessly breaking down the stratagems of 18th-century social warfare."--Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times

"[A] convincing case for how mathematical models and fictional narratives can work towards reciprocal illustration."--Jonathan Sachs, Times Literary Supplement

"This is insightful literary analysis at its most accessible and enjoyable."--Kate Hutchings, Huffington Post Books

"Jane Austen, Game Theorist should join the list of strategic classics like The Art of War . . . on the shelf of everybody who wants to be effective in life."--Diane Coyle, Enlightenment Economics

"Chwe makes an argument for Austen as a founder of decision science in this 2013 book that boasts an impressive array of diagrams and hard-nosed textual analysis."--Evelyn Crowley, Vogue.com

"This is such a fabulous book--carefully written, thoughtful and insightful . . ."--Guardian.co.uk's Grrl Scientist blog

"[B]lends two very different subjects--game theory and literature--delightfully."--Siddarth Singh, Mint

"Well researched and with an excellent index, the book will appeal to Austen fans who can see her characters in another light . . ."--Choice

"When an intelligent, knowledgeable reader with a new distinctive viewpoint engages intensely with a great work of literature, the results are usually worthy of attention. There is much that is valuable in Chwe's book."--Ernest Davis, SIAM News

From the Inside Flap

"Michael Chwe shows that Jane Austen is a strategic analyst--a game theorist whose characters exercise strategic thinking. Game theorists usually study war, business, crime and punishment, diplomacy, politics, and one-upmanship. Jane Austen studies social advancement, romantic relationships, and even gamesmanship. Game theorists will enjoy this venture into unfamiliar territory, while Jane Austen fans will enjoy being illuminated about their favorite author's strategic acumen--and learn a little game theory besides."--Thomas C. Schelling, Nobel Laureate in Economics

"Jane Austen's novels provide wonderful examples of strategic thinking in the lives of ordinary people. In Jane Austen, Game Theorist, Michael Chwe brilliantly brings out these strategies, and Austen's intuitive game-theoretic analysis of these situations and actions. This book will transform the way you read literature."--Avinash Dixit, coauthor of The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist's Guide to Success in Business and Life

"Jane Austen, game theorist?! You will cry, how absurd! But you will be wrong. Michael Chwe's beautifully written and argued book makes the case, crushingly, that Our Jane was fascinated by human prudent interaction--what the game theorists call strategy. Based on deep familiarity with the novels and their scholarly literature, his book will instruct and delight both literary critics and economists. Combining the humanities and social sciences for mutual illumination, Chwe practices a 'humanomics' masterfully."--Deirdre N. McCloskey, University of Illinois, Chicago

"Whether you're an intelligent strategic thinker or a clueless bureaucrat, this book will teach and delight you. The merger of game theory and Jane Austen, with extended examples from African American folklore and U.S. foreign policy, provides the best study I know of motive and cluelessness. Michael Chwe, a rare breed of political scientist, has raised the game of two disciplines. This is a genuinely interdisciplinary work that avoids the reductionism of much game theory and the provincialism of many Austen admirers."--Regenia Gagnier, author of The Insatiability of Human Wants: Economics and Aesthetics in Market Society

"It would be useful for everyone to understand a little bit more about strategic thinking. Jane Austen seems not only to get this, but to explore it obsessively. Looking at Austen and other works, this persuasive book shows that the game theory in historical sources is not inherently opposed to humanistic thinking, but embedded within it."--Laura J. Rosenthal, University of Maryland

"Polished, organized, and well-documented, this book demonstrates the existence of well-defined game theory in historical texts. Jane Austen, in particular, develops a clear model of strategic thinking in her novels. Michael Chwe shows the efficacy and pitfalls of such thinking in her characters' actions, and in their perceptions and understanding of the actions of others. An enjoyable read."--Susan Skeath, coauthor of Games of Strategy

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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
47 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun book from social science perspective 14 April 2013
By mcdickenson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book has strong and weak points, but the good outweighs the bad if you are interested in either Austen or game theory. The best part is the careful analysis: all of the author's points about Austen's "proto-game theory" or analysis of strategic thinking are supported by references to her texts. Another thing I liked was the set of references throughout to related work (e.g. on reference dependence, novels as models for social science).

There were two aspects of the book that I did not like. One is that, given the title, I did not expect so much introductory material on "folk game theory" in other literature (the musical Oklahoma!, African-American folk literature). This material certainly complements the main thrust of the book, but could have been published as a separate paper. The other drawback was that definitions of major terms--such as how Austen would define strategic thinking--are left until relatively late in the book.

These two drawbacks were personal preferences, and the book is still a worthwhile read. If you are an Austen fan you will be introduced to a new theme in her work. If you are a game theorist you may see you work in a new light. Recommended, but with the qualifications stated above.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing examination 19 Jun 2013
By The Splendiferous T - Published on Amazon.com
Definitely an intriguing examination of Jane Austen's brilliant crafting of characters. I'm generally annoyed by analysts insisting that a long-dead author meant this or that, when no one knows for sure what an author may or may not have deliberately intended, but this book doesn't presume so far. It simple renames Austen's preference for "cleverness" as "game theory."

There is some technical discussion, but any liberal arts or social science readers can skim over that chapter and still understand the basics of the author's point. A great bridge between math lovers and English majors. Probably best for college-level readers, not mass-market.

The author also digresses into examples completely unrelated to Austen; while African-American folk tales and civil rights strategy are illustrative and fascinating, they seem completely out of place in a book that seem intended only for Austen lovers.

Overall, a thorough and enlightening read.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful Literary Analysis with a Cognitive Psychology Twist 11 May 2013
By Herbert Gintis - Published on Amazon.com
Michael Chwe is a smart and talented economist whose multidisciplinary predilections led him to the political science department at UCLA. I know and love Jane Austen, and was skeptical of the title of this book. Indeed, I think the title is somewhat tangential to the content of the book. There are no Nash equilibria, no common knowledge assumptions, no mixed strategy solutions---all the standard fare of game theory.

What Chwe has authoritatively explored is the complex back-and-forth psychological dynamics of making decisions based on psyching out what other people are thinking, and taking actions that can reverberate three or more times from one mind to another, in the search for achieving one's goals. I had not thought just how central this idea is to the Austen novels. Indeed, it may just be what makes Austen the fine novelist that she is.

Chwe is always interesting and insightful. You will not learn academic game theory from this book, but you can take what you learned back to your reading of the Austen novels, and see dimensions of human behavior you may have missed in previous readings.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stories and strategy; Class and cluelessness 16 Aug 2013
By prof carl - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I was attracted to this book because I am an economist who teaches and uses game theory, and I love fiction. The book made me appreciate that the careful analysis of strategic behavior was written long before formal game theory was introduced. I found the description of communicating strategic thinking through African American fables, like Flossie and the Fox to be especially interesting.
The book also demonstrates that Austen had a richer understanding of strategy than formal game theory. This is argued persuasively in the discussion of carelessness in Austen and in real life. The careful discussion of the sources of carelessness makes the concept important for the analysis of choice and behavior.
Anyone interested in better understanding human interaction, real or fictional, would find this book interesting and valuable.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New perspective. 30 Jun 2013
By Barbara Knox-Shaw - Published on Amazon.com
Brilliant, amusing, and very fully substantiated. Here is criticism that really gets to grips with the novels themselves. A pleasure to read.
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