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Jane Austen, Game Theorist$

Michael Suk-Young Chwe

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780691162447

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691162447.001.0001

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Game Theory in Context

Game Theory in Context

(p.9) Chapter Two Game Theory in Context
Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Michael Suk-Young Chwe

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explains game theory from the ground up. It first considers the concepts of choice and preferences before discussing strategic thinking as a combination of several skills. Game theory is built upon rational choice theory, and the chapter uses an example from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park to illustrate first rational choice theory and then game theory. To demonstrate the usefulness of game theory, it uses a simple game-theoretic model to show how Beatrice and Benedick in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Richard and Harrison in Richard Wright's Black Boy, and people revolting against an oppressive regime all face the same situation. Finally, it reviews previous work trying to bring game theory, as well as related concepts such as “theory of mind,” together with the study of literature.

Keywords:   game theory, choice, preferences, strategic thinking, rational choice theory, Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Much Ado About Nothing, Black Boy, literature

GAME THEORY considers interactions among two or more people and is built upon rational choice theory, which looks at the choice of a single individual. I use a simple example from Austen’s Mansfield Park to illustrate first rational choice theory and then game theory. Since strategic thinking is the central concept of game theory, I discuss it in some detail. I then use examples from William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Richard Wright’s Black Boy to illustrate how game theory can be useful, for example, in understanding popular revolt against a regime.

The growth of game theory and rational choice theory in the social sciences has met with substantial criticism. I next discuss how recognizing Austen as a game theorist puts these criticisms in a different light. For example, some critics argue that rational choice theory glorifies selfishness and asociality, which must be held in check by social norms. But for Austen, insisting upon the right to choose according to one’s own preferences (over whom to marry, for example) is not selfish but subversive. Austen’s heroines are already ensnared in social obligations and expectations; more social norms are exactly what they do not need.

Game theory and literature have had previous interactions; for example, a few game theorists have analyzed literary works. Again, my stronger claim is that Austen herself is a game theorist, who in her novels explores decision-making and strategic thinking systematically and theoretically. Finally, I consider how humanists have used ideas about rationality and cognition to analyze literature, and how understanding Austen as a game theorist relates to these discussions.

Rational Choice Theory

In Austen’s Mansfield Park, five-year-old Betsey and her fourteen-year-old sister Susan are fighting because Betsey has taken possession of Susan’s knife, a present from their departed sister Mary. Their older sister Fanny decides to buy a new knife for Betsey so that she will voluntarily give up Susan’s knife. Betsey takes the new knife and household peace is restored.

(p.10) Consider the situation before Fanny intervenes. Betsey chooses either to keep Susan’s knife or give it up. Rational choice theory represents this with the following diagram:

Game Theory in Context

Figure 1. Betsey’s decision.

Here Betsey’s two choices are represented by two lines or “branches” coming from a dot or “node.” This node has Betsey’s name on it because Betsey is choosing. One branch is labeled “Keep Susan’s knife” and the other is “Give up Susan’s knife.” If she chooses the branch of keeping Susan’s knife, she considers the outcome good, and we write “Good.” But if she chooses the branch of giving it up, she has nothing, which she considers “Worst.” This “tree” is a simple way to represent Betsey’s decision.

One convenient way to represent Betsey’s preferences is to use numbers. For Good, we can write the number 8, and for Worst we can write the number 7, the idea being that Betsey prefers higher numbers. The numbers are called “payoffs” or “utilities.”

Once Fanny offers Betsey a new knife, however, the situation changes. Betsey still chooses whether to keep or give up Susan’s knife, but her preferences are different. Keeping Susan’s knife is still good, but now giving it up means getting the new knife, which she likes best. So now we have a different tree. Here we write the payoff 9 for Best.

Game Theory in Context

Figure 2. Betsey’s decision after Fanny buys a new knife for her.

(p.11) Almost all of rational choice theory boils down to trees like these. The core model of rational choice theory is payoff maximization: a person has numerical payoffs for each alternative and chooses the one with the highest payoff.

Assigning payoff numbers to outcomes might seem artificial and crude, but this is merely a convenient way to notate a person’s ranking from best to worst. The implications of payoff maximization are best illustrated in examples. Say Violet decides how many children to give birth to and raise during her life. Realistically, her possible choices are 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 children. She decides that she would be most content without children, that is, choosing 0. Upon a medical examination, however, she is informed by her doctor that she can have at most one child, and so her set of alternatives is now 0 and 1. Knowing that she can have at most one child, she decides that she should have one child and chooses 1. Violet’s choice is understandable, but violates payoff maximization (assuming that there are no “ties” and that her payoffs themselves do not change when she sees the doctor). Choosing 1 from the two alternatives 0 and 1 means that 1 has a higher payoff than 0, which means that 0 could not have had the highest payoff in the original situation.

For another example, say that Walter spends his money only on coffee, beer, and cigarettes, and one day his income doubles. Once his income doubles, he might consume more of all three items, he might consume less of some items and more of others, or his consumption of all items might remain unchanged. But it is not possible for his consumption of all items to decrease, if we assume payoff maximization, because he could have done the same thing before his income doubled, and he didn’t. If his consumption of all items decreases, payoff maximization is violated.

One might think that a crucial issue for rational choice theory is what “rationality” means, but it is not. The term “rational” is often associated with instrumental, calculated, calm, deliberate, knowledgeable, individualistic action and is often contrasted with impetuousness, emotionality, ignorance, ideological bias, sentimentality, and social-mindedness. Rational choice theory at its core, however, is about none of these things. According to rational choice theory, a person makes a “rational choice” if it can be described by payoff maximization; for example if Walter consumes less of all items when his income doubles, he is not making a rational choice. Payoff maximization does not translate directly into any intuitive or colloquial conception of “rationality”; an altruistic person is no more or less likely to violate payoff maximization than a selfish person, for example. Rational choice theory also does not care about what the alternatives actually are; all that matters is that a person chooses among them in a way consistent with the model. A person with one hundred dollars might choose between getting a fancy (p.12) haircut, donating the money anonymously to the local food bank, giving the money to his itinerant brother, or buying a handgun and shooting himself. A vain person, a generous person, a family-minded person, and a suicidal person can all be described by payoff maximization.

Payoff maximization is a purposefully crude way to describe how people make choices, especially compared to psychological studies of decision-making, for example. If Walter consumes less of everything after his income doubles, payoff maximization is violated, regardless of whether Walter makes this decision in a calm, thoughtful, instrumental, individualistic, or calculating manner, or whether he makes this decision out of habit, intuition, superstition, rules of thumb, in a fit of anger, or because of social pressures. Violet’s decision about how many children to have can be made with a mixture of prudence and impulsiveness, and might involve a messy mixture of financial constraints, lifestyle changes, emotions such as guilt and joy, celebration of her newly valued fertility, concerns for her family, and her own identity as a woman and mother. For the outside observer, explaining a person’s fertility choices is not necessarily easy, and for that matter Violet herself could spend years retrospectively trying to understand this single decision.

However, even with a crude model of how people make choices, things can get complicated enough, especially when two or more people are involved.

Game Theory

In our Mansfield Park example, Betsey is not the only person making a choice. Fanny also chooses whether to buy a new knife or not, and anticipates what Betsey will do in response. To consider more than one person, we need game theory.

Our earlier two trees describe two situations: the first (figure 1) describes Betsey’s decision if Fanny does nothing, and the second (figure 2) describes Betsey’s decision if Fanny buys a new knife. But which of these two situations takes place is up to Fanny. Hence we build these two trees into a larger tree, as shown in figure 3.

Here Fanny makes the first decision, and her node is the one at the left. She can either choose to do nothing or buy a new knife. If Fanny does nothing, then we have the first tree we derived before which represents Betsey’s situation before Fanny intervenes. If Fanny buys a new knife, then we have the second tree we derived before. For clarity, Betsey’s actions and branches are in boldface, and Fanny’s are in regular type.

The only thing remaining is to include Fanny’s preferences. The status quo in which Betsey keeps Susan’s knife is Bad (we give this payoff 2), (p.13)

Game Theory in Context

Figure 3. The two trees make a larger tree.

but the Worst thing for Fanny is if Betsey keeps Susan’s knife even after Fanny buys a new one (payoff 1), since Fanny’s purchase would be for nought. If Betsey gives up Susan’s knife once offered a new knife, that is a Good outcome (payoff 3). The Best outcome for Fanny is if Betsey gives up Susan’s knife without Fanny having to buy anything (payoff 4). Again, we use boldface to indicate Betsey’s preferences and regular type for Fanny’s, and we have the tree shown in figure 4.

This tree, which is called a “game tree” or “extensive form game,” captures the fact that once Fanny decides whether to buy a new knife or not, it is Betsey’s decision whether to keep Susan’s knife or give it up. It shows how Fanny, before making her decision, must think about how Betsey will choose in response.

Writing down and analyzing diagrams like these is what game theory does. More complicated situations—for example, if people can play a series of moves and countermoves—can be represented in the same way, just with more elaborate trees. Computer programs that play chess, for (p.14)

Game Theory in Context

Figure 4. The larger tree with Fanny’s preferences added.

example, construct very large ones. Game theory is pretty light in what it “imposes”: if you describe a situation like Fanny’s manipulation of Betsey, you pretty much have to specify at a minimum which people are involved, what their possible choices are, and how they feel about the possible outcomes. In this sense, a game tree is a kind of minimal notation, like musical notation, which specifies note pitch and duration, not phrasing or various kinds of expressiveness.

The tree shows how Fanny’s choice “interacts” with Betsey’s choice: Fanny, when making her choice, must consider how Betsey will choose. Game theory focuses on this interaction and thus does not usually consider more psychologically realistic or subtle models of choice. For example, when Fanny considers whether to buy a new knife for Betsey, she need not think much about whether Betsey is jealous of the deceased Mary’s love for Susan and therefore covets the knife that Mary gave to Susan, whether Betsey likes the knife because it symbolizes power and autonomy, or whether Betsey simply likes shiny metal objects. For the (p.15) sake of the manipulation, Fanny needs only a crude model: Betsey prefers a new knife over Susan’s knife over no knife. For us to understand why Fanny buys a new knife, similarly we do not have to peer into Fanny’s soul; we just have to understand that Fanny is willing to pay for a new knife if Betsey gives up Susan’s knife. Again, individual choices can be quite complicated, but we model them crudely in order to focus on their interaction, how each person’s choice depends on the choices of others.

Strategic Thinking

To manipulate Betsey, Fanny must think about how Betsey will choose when offered a new knife. Fanny must engage in strategic thinking, which actually involves several related skills.

First, Fanny must realize that the person doing the choosing is Betsey, not herself. This realization might be considered obvious, but it cannot be taken for granted. Understanding that another person’s mind is different from yours requires a “theory of mind,” a skill that most people acquire in early childhood. For example, in the “false belief” test, a child is shown a scene “acted out” by two dolls, Sally and Anne. Sally puts a marble in her basket, and then leaves. While Sally is gone, Anne takes the marble and hides it in her box. Sally returns and the experimenter asks the child where Sally will look for the marble. Children of ages four and up typically point to the basket, while younger children point to the box (Wimmer and Perner 1983; Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith 1985; Bloom and German 2000). Very young children are not yet skilled at knowing how another person’s beliefs can be different from their own.

A person’s theory of mind depends on her environment as well as her age. For example, it helps to be exposed to minds that are different from your own; among three- to five-year-olds, children who have nontwin siblings and especially children with at least one opposite-sex sibling are generally better at false belief tests than only children and twins with no other siblings (Cassidy, Fineberg, Brown, and Perkins 2005). Theory of mind can be understood as culturally specific. For example, in Europe and the United States in modern times, people often explain action by mental states as opposed to spirits, gods, or life forces. In contrast, Samoan children do not offer “I did not mean to” as an excuse for bad behavior (Lillard 1998). Some languages, such as Turkish, have a specific word for believing something that is not true, in contrast to English, for example, which uses “think” both for believing something true and believing something untrue. Using this specific word when asking children improves their performance in false belief tests (Shatz, Diesendruck, Martinez-Beck, and Akar 2003). One might (p.16) speculate that believers in a single all-powerful god might be worse at understanding others’ mental states than people who must track several interacting gods (Chrissochoidis and Huck 2011). Theory of mind is evidently confined to humans. For example, chimpanzees do not appear to have a theory of mind; a monkey will make a gesture asking a human experimenter for food even if the experimenter is wearing an obvious blindfold (Povinelli and Vonk 2003).

Some argue that people on the autistic spectrum have weak theory of mind skills, and even that this weakness is an essential aspect of autism (Baron-Cohen 1997). On the other hand, there is evidence that children on the autistic spectrum do fine when false-belief tests are presented in visual terms. In one experiment, children are asked to draw a red apple with a green pen, and are then asked what color apple did they intend to draw, as well as what color apple would a person who just walked in think that they drew. Children on the autistic spectrum report that they themselves intended to draw a red apple but that another person who sees only the drawing would think that they drew a green apple (Peterson 2002; see also Gernsbacher and Frymiare 2005). The animal behavior specialist Temple Grandin states that her theory of mind operates visually (Grandin 2008). Keen attention to visual detail is common among people on the autistic spectrum, and Grandin finds that this helps her understand how animals perceive their surroundings (Grandin and Johnson 2004).

A related characteristic of people on the autistic spectrum is a strong orientation toward literality, “relaying factual information or phrases memorized from TV shows without responding to what their listener is saying or doing. … [T]hey may hear the saying ‘Don’t let the cat out of the bag’ and search for a cat and bag” (Baker 2001, p. xi). Similarly, understanding sarcasm requires knowing how a person’s intended meaning differs from her literal words; people with impaired theory of mind have difficulty detecting sarcasm (Shany-Ur, Poorzand, Grossman, Growdon, Jang, Ketelle, Miller, and Rankin 2012).

Once Fanny’s theory of mind skills are established and she understands that Betsey is making her own choice, Fanny must think about how Betsey will make that choice. Fanny must consider what Betsey wants, in other words Betsey’s preferences. Fanny correctly guesses that although Betsey prefers Susan’s knife to nothing at all, Betsey prefers the new knife to Susan’s knife. Just as one must learn that other people’s minds are different from your own, one must learn that other people’s preferences can differ from your own. This also is obvious, but mistakes are common, for example when you enjoy a book so much that you buy it for a friend without taking a moment to consider whether she will actually care for it. Understanding another person’s preferences can be surprisingly difficult; for example, if you detest cigarette smoking or deer hunting or watching (p.17) soap operas yourself, you might have real difficulty thinking that a friend enjoys these activities.

One technique to better understand another person’s preferences and choices is “perspective taking,” in which you consciously try to place yourself in the mind of another. Physical or visual analogies are often used, as in “put yourself in her place” or “see it from his point of view.” To help its younger designers better understand the preferences of older car buyers, the Nissan Motor Company developed an “aging suit,” which includes cloudy goggles, a weighted belt, and constraining elastic bands; by wearing it, one thereby adopts an older person’s diminished vision, heavy midsection, and limited flexibility (Neil 2008). Taking another’s perspective helps one empathize, but perspective taking and empathy are not quite the same. Empathy is more about sharing feelings. For example, you can put yourself in the mind of your military adversary to understand his objectives and predict his choices, without feeling the pain of your adversary’s casualties.

To infer the motivations of others, you can observe their actions and statements, as well as their facial expressions and body language. Even when you know a person well it is not always easy to figure out her preferences; for example, when your mother says on the telephone that she will not be disappointed if you do not come home for the holidays, it can take substantial effort—listening to her tone of voice and interpreting her side remarks—to figure out, even imperfectly, how she really feels. In Korean, this skill is called nunchi. A person with good nunchi can understand another’s desires when they are not expressed explicitly, can size up a social situation quickly, and can use this skill to get ahead; for example, by using her nunchi to understand how she can help the wife of her husband’s boss, a woman might help her husband get promoted (Shim, Kim, and Martin 2008, p. 94).

The literal meaning of nunchi is “eye-reading,” and indeed much research on understanding the minds of others is about how people see each other’s eyes. In one experiment, men are worse than women at identifying people’s mental states (for example, if a person is happy, sad, angry, or afraid) from pictures of their eyes, and people on the autistic spectrum are worse than non-autistics; autism has been interpreted as an extreme form of the male brain (Baron-Cohen, Jolliffe, Mortimore, and Robertson 1997; Baron-Cohen 2002). Also, by looking at someone’s eyes, you can see what they are seeing. When I talk to you and we make eye contact, I know that you are paying attention; also, since you see me observing you, you know that I know that you are paying attention, and so forth (Chwe 2001). Compared to eighty other primate species, humans are the only species that have unpigmented white as opposed to pigmented brown sclera (whites of the eyes), and humans also have the (p.18) largest exposed sclera area; the interpretation is that these adaptations enabled humans to better see each other’s gaze direction (Kobayashi and Kohshima 2001). Great apes follow a human’s gaze more by looking at the direction of the human’s head than his eyes (for example, they follow a human’s head direction even when the human’s eyes are closed), while even one-year-old human infants follow eyes (Tomasello, Hare, Lehmann, and Call 2007).

Being able to understand the mind of another does not mean that you always do so. In one experiment, the “participant” is asked to put a roll of tape into a paper bag while the “director” is behind a large cardboard wall and obviously cannot see what the participant is doing. The wall is then removed and the paper bag is placed, along with other objects, including a cassette tape, between the director and participant. The director then asks the participant to “move the tape.” Since the participant has a theory of mind, she should understand that the director does not know that there is a roll of tape in the paper bag and thus must mean the cassette tape. But most participants reach for or grab the bag before correcting themselves; almost all look at the bag. So even though the participant knows that the director could not possibly mean the roll of tape in the bag, the participant still cannot help looking at it and even reaching toward it. The interpretation is that theory of mind is like an espresso machine you are given as a present, which you leave “in the box” until you actually need it (Keysar, Lin, and Barr 2003).

A person’s strategic thinking might thus depend not only on her ability and training but also on the kind of situation in which she “takes it out of the box.” For me, a cocktail party might hardly be the place for goal-directed strategic reasoning, while for you it might be ideal. I might be terrible at strategic thinking in open-ended situations like cocktail parties, which have no explicit “rules” for behavior, but be very good at it in explicitly defined situations like chess, while you might be the opposite. In one experiment, people on the autistic spectrum are just as good as a control group, even slightly better, at responding correctly to “move the tape” requests, but when asked to retell a story, use fewer terms referring to characters’ mental states (Beeger, Malle, Nieuwland, and Keysar 2010). Perhaps people on the autistic spectrum do not take their theory of mind skills “out of the box” when recounting a story but employ them easily when concrete action is necessary (see also Sally and Hill 2006). In another experiment, Chinese students are better than non-Asian U.S. students at responding correctly to “move the tape” requests; the interpretation is not that Chinese students are more able, but that they are more accustomed to using their theory of mind, since they participate in a culture that emphasizes “interdependent selves” (Wu and Keysar 2007).

(p.19) To think strategically, one must also take into account how others think strategically. In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood, thinking that her daughter Marianne has cleverly arranged to be alone at home to receive her suitor Willoughby, therefore excuses Marianne from the family’s social visit to Lady Middleton. If Mrs. Dashwood had thought Marianne strategically unsophisticated, she would have asked Marianne to come along. In general, you might take an action thinking that another person will take an action because a third person will take an action to prevent a fourth person from taking an action, and so forth. Thus strategic thinking involves both estimating the strategicness of others and also the more computational process (as in playing chess) of sorting through sequences of actions and reactions. When Renfroe (2009, p. 157) prepares for an argument with her husband, “I think of what it is that I need to say to him and three possible responses. Then I think of three things I could say to each of those responses. Within minutes I am already twenty-seven moves into the conversation, and he doesn’t even have a clue we need to talk yet.”

Perhaps the most advanced skill involved in strategic thinking is coming up with manipulations and plans, creating situations in which people act in such a way as to produce the desired outcome. Fanny’s idea of buying a new knife for Betsey is not especially creative, but still not everyone would have thought of it. Some strategic manipulations are strikingly clever. For example, Rabbi Harvey, carrying his friend’s precious candlestick, is held up by a thief. Rabbi Harvey asks the thief to shoot bullet holes in his jacket and hat so that he can prove to his friend that he was robbed; by asking the thief repeatedly, Rabbi Harvey depletes all of the thief’s ammunition (Sheinkin 2008). For another example, when a woman who wants to keep all of her late husband’s inheritance refuses to acknowledge that a young boy is her son, Ali (son of Abu-Talib) orders her to marry the boy, and thus she admits the truth (Khawam 1980, p. 143). Coming up with effective plans involves creativity and ingenuity and is not so easy to teach. The best way seems to be the case study method, discussing those manipulations that are particularly unexpected and brilliant.

How Game Theory Is Useful

Game theory has been used in many different ways in the social sciences, to understand, for example, how people cooperate, how workers, managers, and legislators bargain, why nations fight wars, why people join social movements, how firms compete with each other, and why Super Bowl television commercials are so expensive (for a general introduction, (p.20) see for example Dixit and Nalebuff 2008; on Super Bowl advertising and social movements, see Chwe 2001). Here I consider examples of what game theory calls “coordination problems.” Game theory is most useful in drawing connections among seemingly quite different situations: here I consider Beatrice and Benedick in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Richard and Harrison in Richard Wright’s autobiographical Black Boy, and citizens revolting against a regime.

In Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare 1600 [2004]), Beatrice and Benedick greet each other with insults and disdain. However, Beatrice’s family (her uncle Leonato, her cousin Hero, and Hero’s attendant, Ursula) and Benedick’s friends (Don Pedro and Claudio) manipulate them into believing that each has a secret love for the other, and thus each falls for the other, making the fabrication true. They need outside help because of their pride; Beatrice explains to Don Pedro that she insults Benedick “[s]o I would not he should do me, my lord, lest I should prove the mother of fools” (p. 231). When they realize that they have been manipulated, their love momentarily falters but is saved by the evidence of love poems each has secretly written, stolen from their pockets by Hero and Claudio.

Beatrice and Benedick each must choose whether to love or not, and neither knows the other’s choice before making his or her own (in comparison, Betsey chooses knowing whether Fanny bought a new knife). There are four possible outcomes: both love, only Beatrice loves, only Benedick loves, and neither loves. We can write these outcomes in a table. For clarity, we write Benedick’s action in boldface.

Table 1

Benedick loves

Benedick doesn’t

Beatrice loves

“Benedick, love on; I will requite thee.”

“I should prove the mother of fools.”

Beatrice doesn’t

pride “Stand and I condemned scorn so much?” for

“No, Uncle, I’ll none.”

Each of the four outcomes is represented by a quote from Beatrice expressing her opinion of that outcome (pp. 237, 231, 237, 229). If both love (the upper-left entry in the table), then Beatrice joyfully returns her love: “I will requite thee” (p. 237). If only Beatrice loves (the upper-right entry), then Beatrice feels foolish and embarrassed. If only Benedick loves (the lower-left entry), Beatrice is happy but feels bad for being so scornful. If neither loves (the lower-right entry), Beatrice tells her uncle Leonato that she is content marrying no man: “No, Uncle, I’ll none. (p.21) Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred” (p. 229).

We can abbreviate the feelings behind Beatrice’s quotes in the following way:

Table 2

Benedick loves

Benedick doesn’t

Beatrice loves



Beatrice doesn’t



The Best thing for Beatrice is if they both love and the Worst thing is to love without being loved. Being loved but not returning it is OK, and neither loving is Bad but better than being a fool. Note that if Benedick does not love (the right column), then Beatrice does not want to love either. If Benedick does love (the left column), then Beatrice wants to love.

Benedick’s feelings are similar. The Best thing for him also is if both love, the Worst is if he loves without being loved back, and neither loving is Bad. So his feelings look like the following (again, we use boldface to distinguish his feelings from Beatrice’s):

Table 3

Benedick loves

Benedick doesn’t

Beatrice loves



Beatrice doesn’t



The difference between Beatrice’s and Benedick’s tables is that for Beatrice, the worst thing is if her love is unrequited (the upper right outcome) and for Benedick, the worst thing is if his love is unrequited (the lower left outcome).

For compact exposition, we merge these two tables (table 2 and table 3) together into a single table. Here, in each of the four outcomes, we first write Beatrice’s feelings and then Benedick’s.

Table 4

Benedick loves

Benedick doesn’t

Beatrice loves

Best, Best

Worst, OK

Beatrice doesn’t

OK, Worst

Bad, Bad

Again, the two agree on what is best (mutual love) and what is bad (mutual indifference). What is worst for Beatrice (loving Benedick (p.22) foolishly) is second-best for Benedick, and what is worst for Benedick is second-best for Beatrice.

This table, called a “strategic form game,” distills the Beatrice-Benedick situation to its essential elements. It might seem slightly complicated at first, but it cannot be made any simpler. Love does not come upon them like a fever or euphoria; each consciously chooses to love. Each knows that choosing to love risks foolishness. Each is painfully aware that all four outcomes are possible, and that by trying for the best, one risks the worst. One cannot simply say that each desires the other; it is essential to the situation that each person wants to love only if the other does also. One also cannot simply say that Beatrice and Benedick “find love” with the help of their friends and thus collectively move from bad to best; they are both independent individuals who make independent choices, and their love almost unravels once they are informed of their friends’ manipulation.

In Black Boy, Richard Wright was at his job washing eyeglasses when Mr. Olin, his white foreman, approached to tell him that Harrison, a worker at a rival optical house, had a grudge against him (Wright 1945 [1993], pp. 235–37). “‘Well, you better watch that nigger Harrison,’ Mr. Olin said in a low, confidential tone. ‘A little while ago I went down to get a Coca-Cola and Harrison was waiting for you at the door with a knife. … Said he was going to get you.’ … ‘I’ve got to see that boy and talk to him,’ I said, thinking out loud. ‘No, you’d better not,’ Mr. Olin said. ‘You’d better let some of us white boys talk to him.’”

Richard seeks out Harrison anyhow. “‘Say, Harrison, what’s this all about?’ I asked, standing cautiously four feet from him. … ‘I haven’t done anything to you,’ I said. ‘And I ain’t got nothing against you,’ he mumbled, still watchful. … ‘But Mr. Olin said that you came over to the factory this morning, looking for me with a knife.’ ‘Aw, naw,’ he said, more at ease now. ‘I ain’t been in your factory all day.’ … ‘But why would Mr. Olin tell me things like that?’ I asked. Harrison dropped his head; he laid his sandwich aside. ‘I … I … ’ he stammered and pulled from his pocket a long gleaming knife; it was already open. ‘I was just waiting to see what you was going to do to me … ’ I leaned weakly against a wall, feeling sick, my eyes upon the sharp steel blade of the knife. ‘You were going to cut me?’ I asked. ‘If you had cut me, I was going to cut you first,’ he said.”

Harrison is not a fool for carrying the knife; as he says, if you think that the other will bring a knife, you would want to bring one also. In this situation, Richard and Harrison each choose either to bring a knife or not. We can make a table as before. Here Richard’s feelings are in regular type and Harrison’s are in boldface. (p.23)

Table 5

Harrison doesn’t

Harrison brings knife

Richard doesn’t

Best, Best

Worst, OK

Richard brings knife

OK, Worst

Bad, Bad

For both Richard and Harrison, the best outcome is if neither brings a knife and life goes on normally. If you bring a knife and the other does not, that’s OK but not the best, since you are embarrassed for revealing your distrust. If both bring a knife, that is bad for both, but the worst thing is if you don’t bring a knife and the other does. So if the other doesn’t bring a knife, you don’t want to either. But if the other brings a knife, you would be stupid not to bring one also.

Richard and Harrison vow to keep faith in each other and ignore their white bosses’ provocations. But when each is offered five dollars to fight the other in a boxing match, Harrison convinces a reluctant Richard, saying that it’s just exercise and they can fool the white men into thinking they are really hurting each other. However, “[w]e squared off and at once I knew that I had not thought sufficiently about what I had bargained for. … The white men were smoking and yelling obscenities at us. ‘Crush that nigger’s nuts, nigger!’ … [B]efore I knew it, I had landed a hard right on Harrison’s mouth and blood came. Harrison shot a blow to my nose. The fight was on, was on against our will. I felt trapped and ashamed. I lashed out even harder, and the harder I fought the harder Harrison fought. Our plans and promises now meant nothing. … The hate we felt for the men whom we had tried to cheat went into the blows we threw at each other. … [E]ach of us was afraid to stop and ask for time for fear of receiving a blow that would knock us out. When we were on the point of collapsing from exhaustion, they pulled us apart. I could not look at Harrison. I hated him and I hated myself” (pp. 242–43).

How were their actions “against their will”? They both had agreed to pretend, but once the other begins to fight in earnest, even accidentally, each must fight in return, making things bad for both.

The Beatrice-Benedick situation and the Richard-Harrison situation seem quite different. One is delightful and the other is sobering. One is an unexpected triumph and the other is a degrading defeat. One is about love and the other is about hate.

But when we use the tables above to distill each situation, we find that the two situations are identical. The table that describes the Beatrice-Benedick situation (table 4) and the table that describes the Richard-Harrison situation (table 5) are identical, different only in the names of the characters and the names of their actions. In both situations, the two (p.24) people involved have a “good but risky” action (loving, not bringing a knife) and a “bad but safe” action (not loving, bringing a knife). The best for both people is if both take the good but risky action, but taking that action without the other doing so yields the worst possible outcome. Taking the good but risky action requires an assurance that the other will do the same (Sen 1967).

We might have discovered this similarity without all this apparatus. But the tables make it much easier. Once we have pedantically written down the tables, finding the similarity is a matter of inspection. Once we see the similarity, it becomes clear how mutual love and mutual hatred both can be created out of nothing, and in what sense exactly this creation is against their wills. It becomes clear how one person’s action can be provoked by nothing more than her own expectation of the other person’s action, and that once provoked, each person’s action can in turn respond to the other’s action, resulting in an unexpectedly good or bad outcome, a virtuous or vicious cycle. The third-party manipulators (Hero, Leonato, Ursula, Don Pedro, and Claudio, and Mr. Otis and the other white foremen) have opposite goals but the same method: influencing the expectations of each person about the other in a way that becomes self-confirming.

Our tables are, of course, abstractions; in any abstraction, something is lost, but what is gained is the possibility of finding connections among seemingly disparate things. Whether this gain is worth the loss is best decided in specific contexts. Here the connection between Beatrice-Benedick and Richard-Harrison is, I think, at least slightly unexpected.

When people revolt against an oppressive regime, we make a table like the following:

Table 6

Person 2 revolts

Person 2 stays at home

Person 1 revolts

Best, Best

Worst, OK

Person 1 stays at home

OK, Worst

Bad, Bad

Here we simplify a society into just two people. If everyone revolts, then the regime is overthrown, which is best for everyone. However, if you revolt and others stay at home, then you get shot at, which is the worst outcome. If everyone stays at home, the bad status quo remains. If you stay at home and others revolt, that’s OK from your point of view but not the best.

This table is identical to our previous two tables. Just as Beatrice wants to love only if Benedick does the same, and just as Richard wants to not bring a knife only if Harrison does the same, a person wants to revolt (p.25) only if enough others do the same. Everyone wins if everyone takes the good but risky action, but no one wants to do so alone. Therefore, just as in the Beatrice-Benedick situation and the Richard-Harrison situation, what is essential is everyone’s expectations about everyone else. Like Mr. Olin, oppressive regimes try to make people doubt that anyone else will revolt, knowing that this doubt can be self-perpetuating. Like Beatrice’s and Benedick’s friends, people working against a regime try to create an optimism that feeds on itself.

A wide variety of social situations can be represented by this same table. These situations are called “coordination problems” (see Chwe 2001 for example). Adopting new technology (if enough of my friends use the latest social networking website, I want to start), seeing a movie (I want to see a movie more if it is popular), finding love, sustaining nonviolence, and joining a protest are in a fundamental respect all the same and can all be analyzed in the same way. Richard Wright perhaps intended the situation of Richard and Harrison to be a parable for African American political mobilization. Game theory allows us to understand all of these related situations as parables for each other.


The growth of game theory and rational choice theory has not been universally welcomed (for example, Archer and Tritter (2000) describe it using the terms “colonization” and “imperialism”). The various points of contention have been often surveyed (for example, Friedman 1996). Austen is far above such controversies, and of course wrote before the drawing of disciplinary boundaries; in chapters 7 and 8, I discuss how she judiciously considers alternatives to game-theoretic explanations and carefully distinguishes between strategic thinking and concepts such as selfishness. Here I consider various criticisms and discuss how recognizing Austen as a game theorist puts them in a new light; for example, if game theory was developed by Austen and slave folktellers, it cannot be understood as an intellectual handmaid of more recent historical developments such as capitalism.

As mentioned before, rational choice theory at its core is the payoff maximization model. The payoff maximization model says nothing about what a person’s preferences are, whether a person wants to be expressive or instrumental, altruistic or selfish, cruel or kind. The payoff maximization model is also not meant to describe the actual process by which a person makes a choice. When Sethe kills her infant daughter in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) because she does not want her to live life as a slave, whether this decision is “rational” is not a question that (p.26) rational choice theory tries to answer. A grandparent who travels long distances at great cost just to dote on a grandchild (Abelson 1996) does not violate rational choice theory.

A common criticism is that game theory and rational choice theory assume “passionless, atomistic individuals,” unaffected by social mores or norms, outside any social or cultural context (Archer 2000, p. 50). In the Beatrice-Benedick and Richard-Harrison situations, however, people live in a thick social milieu, complete with expectations about courtship and how black people can talk to whites, for example, and within dense networks of affection and distrust. Richard and Harrison try to create their own norm by vowing to trust each other, but it falls apart. It would be odd to say that carrying a knife, avoiding the risk of heartache, or punching back in desperation is atomistic, selfish, or self-interested as opposed to holistic, altruistic, or public-spirited. It is hard to say that our tables impose an “individualistic” logic: Beatrice and Benedick’s table (table 4) does little more than notate that they both gain if they both love, but neither wants to be a fool and love without being loved back. By offering the new knife to Betsey, all Fanny wants is to restore peace in the household. Is Fanny atomistic?

As for “passionless,” the Beatrice-Benedick and Richard-Harrison situations are steeped in fear, joy, anticipation, disappointment, shame, and disgust, and indeed we took these emotions into account when we wrote down which outcomes were Worst, Best, Bad, and OK in the tables. People often make the most careful and consciously important choices, such as whether to take a feverish wailing child to the emergency room, not in placidity but in uproar. Beatrice and Benedick each make a conscious decision to love, but this does not make the achievement of their love any less emotional. Emotions can be important in many ways not captured in our tables, but it cannot be said that when we write down our tables, or assume that people make conscious choices, we exclude emotion outright.

Some argue that rational choice theory legitimizes capitalism (Amadae 2003, for example), partly because it seems difficult to condemn a system in which everyone is said to be making choices. But the fact that a victim chooses to hand over his wallet at gunpoint does not make the perpetrator’s actions any less criminal. Saying that slaveowners were profit maximizers and not sadists does not legitimize slavery (see, for example, Chwe 1990). The fact that a woman chooses to remain in an abusive relationship does not excuse the abuse.

For that matter, rational choice arguments can legitimize other things too. Until the 1970s, scholars explained social protest in terms of “mob mentality”: “crowds were assumed to create, through suggestion and contagion, a kind of psychologically ‘primitive’ group mind and (p.27) group feelings” (Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta 2001, p. 2). Protests were understood as “something irrational others engaged in” (Calhoun 2001, p. 48). What changed in the 1970s was simply that scholars began to think that social protests were normal, partly because they themselves had participated. Participating in social movements such as the civil rights, lesbian and gay rights, feminist, and environmental movements became “something that ‘people like us’ might do. It was seen as rational in the sense of reasonable, self-aware product of choice as well as (more narrowly) strategic, interest-based, calculated in terms of efficient means to an end” (Calhoun 2001, p. 48). For another example, Walkowitz (1980, p. 9) examines the struggle of Plymouth and Southampton prostitutes in the 1870s against the Contagious Diseases Acts and concludes, “Prostitutes thus emerge as important historical actors, as women who made their own history, albeit under very restrictive conditions. They were not rootless social outcasts but poor working women trying to survive in towns that offered them few employment opportunities and that were hostile to young women living alone. Their move into prostitution was not pathological; it was in many ways a rational choice, given the limited alternatives open to them.”

Critics have quite broadly characterized rational choice theory and game theory as serving political trends. Amadae (2003, p. 9) argues that rational choice theory and game theory should be understood as “a philosophic underpinning for American economic and political liberalism,” and emphasizes the origins of game theory in the early U.S.–Soviet Cold War period, specifically at the RAND Corporation, established by the U.S. Air Force in 1946. Fourcade (2009, p. 128) sees the related ascendance of mathematical techniques in economics in the United States as an aspiration toward professionalism, “in the sense of a claim to objectivity, a focus on analytical capabilities, and a high degree of collective organization and regulation.” Archer and Tritter (2000, p. 1) call rational choice theory “the grand theory of high modernity. … [that] has underpinned the neoliberal reforms of the public sector. … [and] the rollback of the traditional social welfare state.” Taylor (2006, p. ix) calls rational choice theory “a radically reductive and dehumanizing but deeply entrenched way of thinking. … [which] has come to have enormous influence on how public policies of all kinds are made.”

Rational choice theory and game theory have been employed in myriad ways and have no single inherent ideological direction. For example, most people understand violence as aberrant behavior, almost inherently irrational, resulting from emotions like aggression. This view of violence allows systemic and instrumental institutions of violence, like slavery and various instruments of the state, to elude examination. A game (p.28) theoretic perspective on violence (for example, Chwe 1990), instead of letting violence float around unattached to any responsible party (as a “scourge,” “cycle,” or “epidemic”), focuses on why particular individuals specifically choose to hurt other people. Thinking of domestic violence as caused by emotional instability and aggression leads to remedies such as counseling, psychotherapy, and medication (see Gordon 1988 for a historical view). Thinking of the actors in domestic violence as making conscious choices leads to remedies that are often considered feminist victories: harsher criminal penalties that decrease the incentive to batter, and women’s shelters that give battered women better choices. Bancroft (2002, p. 34) writes, “While a man is on an abusive rampage, verbally or physically, his mind maintains awareness of a number of questions: ‘Am I doing something that other people could find out about, so it could make me look bad? Am I doing anything that could get me in legal trouble?’”

A more diverse history of game theory is emerging. Leonard (2010) considers, for example, popular interest in chess, and its extrapolation into a “science of struggle” by twenty-four-time world chess champion and mathematician Emanuel Lasker (1907). Leonard (1995, pp. 755–56) writes that “the theory of games was intended to constitute a radical departure with the Hicks-Samuelson variant of neoclassical economics. … [T]he break with mechanism for the analysis of structure, evident in the theory of games, was a shift which characterized many disciplines in the early part of the 20th century, from physics to literary criticism” (see also Leonard 1997). In the 1960s, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963, p. 298) and sociologist Erving Goffman (1961, 1969) were more excited about game theory than most economists. Early writers on strategic thinking include military strategist Sun-tzu (2009) and Oxford lecturer Lewis Carroll (see the survey by Dimand and Dimand 1996). Lebowitz (1988, p. 197) writes that “not only may we speculate that Marx would have been quick to explore its techniques but we can go further and suggest that Marx’s analysis was inherently a ‘game-theoretic’ perspective.”

Recognizing Austen’s place in this history has the following implications (explored more fully in chapters 7 and 8). If rational choice theory and game theory are criticized for ignoring social context, Austen theorizes strategic action not in spite of but perhaps because of her unmatched sensitivity to context. Austen agrees that focusing too narrowly on contrived situations (such as a card game) can make you lose sight of the larger social context, but this is a problem only for mediocre strategists. Austen’s good strategic thinkers always remain aware of the larger context and in fact use others’ interest in trivial games to get them out of the way.

(p.29) If rational choice theory and game theory are criticized for ignoring social norms, Austen shows how social norms, far from protecting sociality against the corrosive forces of individualism, can be the first line of oppression. For Austen, duty and decorum are often nothing but pretenses used to prevent a person from making her own choices, over whom to marry or even whether to take a walk. To control someone, call them selfish. In an environment of unbridled individualism, perhaps we should valorize social norms, but in an environment lousy with social norms like Austen’s, exploring how people best use the agency they have is more urgent.

If rational choice theory and game theory are criticized for assuming that all people act like middle-class consumers, Austen elucidates the strategic wisdom of the relatively powerless. For example, Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992, p. 124) argue that “[a]ll the capacities and dispositions it [rational choice theory] liberally grants to its abstract ‘actor’—the art of estimating and taking chances, the ability to anticipate through a kind of practical induction, the capacity to bet on the possible against the probable for a measured risk … can only be acquired under definite social and economic conditions. They are in fact always a function of one’s power in, and over, the specific economy.” But Austen’s novels, African American slave folktales, and entire folk game theory traditions argue the opposite: the relatively powerless need strategic thinking most and learn it best. In his analysis of Polish prison life, Kaminski (2004, p. 1) writes, “Prison socializes an inmate to behave hyperrationally. … A clever move can shorten one’s sentence, save one from a rape or a beating, keep one’s spirit high, or increase one’s access to resources.”

If rational choice theory and game theory are criticized (England and Kilbourne 1990 and Nelson 2009) for being “masculinist” (unemotional, reductive, technical, and acontextual), Austen establishes a “women’s way of strategy,” analogous perhaps to “women’s way of knowing” (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule 1986). Similarly, if game theory is part of the African American slave folktale tradition and other world folk traditions, it cannot be understood as an artifact of (presumably Western) high modernity.

Of course, game theory and rational choice theory have limitations, some due to our limited imaginations and some likely inherent. Any theory is worth pushing to its limits, to understand what it can and cannot explain and why. For example, Hargreaves Heap and Varoufakis (2004, pp. 3–4) write that game theory “demonstrat[es] the limits of a particular form of individualism in social science: one based exclusively on the model of persons as preference-satisfiers. … Indeed, for those who are suspicious of economic imperialism within the social sciences, game theory is, somewhat ironically, a potential ally” (here and throughout (p.30) the book, emphasis is in the original). Austen is particularly thoughtful about the limits of game theory, and how strategic thinking interacts with other aspects of human behavior. For example, Austen acknowledges the importance of emotion, but intense feelings help her heroines choose better, not worse. Austen does not idealize a world in which everyone always acts strategically: she considers the disadvantages of strategic thinking (chapter 10) and even explores why people often do not think strategically (chapter 12).

A lot of game theory and rational choice theory is written in the language of mathematics and is not very accessible to nonspecialists. Mathematics is indispensable for understanding many phenomena, in the social as well as natural world; for that matter, Liu (2004) argues that the humanities should also consider itself a “technical” discipline. In any case, many essential game-theoretic insights have been expressed without mathematics (for example Schelling 1960 [1980]). Austen generates insights in language not just accessible but beloved.

Game Theory and Literature

Scholarly interactions between game theory and the humanities have been tentative at best (see, for example, Chwe 2009 and other essays in the collection introduced by Palumbo-Liu 2009, as well as Bender 2012 and Palumbo-Liu 2012). Daston (2004, p. 361) writes, “Rational choice theory, game theory, and other models of human conduct are frankly imperialistic in their aims. But insofar as there has been any humanistic response to them, it has been a rolling of eyes heavenward and a shrugging of shoulders about the absurdity of it all (sentiments and gestures richly reciprocated by the other side, especially the indifference).”

Game theorists occasionally employ literary examples. Morgenstern (1928, p. 98, quoted in Morgenstern 1935 [1976], pp. 173–74) considers the pursuit of Sherlock Holmes by Professor Moriarty, in which each chooses to get off the train at either Dover or Canterbury (Conan Doyle 1893 [2005]). Von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944, p. 176) call this “a paradigm of many possible conflicts in practical life.” More recently, Dixit and Nalebuff (2008, p. 423) use an example from Shakespeare’s Henry V, in which King Henry allows any soldier to leave before the battle of Agincourt, but only publicly in front of all the other soldiers (see also Dixit 2005; Watts 2002; and Watts and Smith 1989). Crawford, Costa-Gomes, and Iriberri (2010) use literary examples such as M. M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions in support of “level-k” models in game theory. Eliaz and Rubinstein (2011) conduct an experiment motivated by Edgar Allan Poe’s (1845 [1998]) discussion of the “even (p.31) and odd” game in “The Purloined Letter” (see also Deloche and Oguer 2006 and Swirski 1996).

But few have attempted to use game theory to substantially analyze literature, despite several calls to do so (including Brams 1994, reprinted in Brams 2011; De Ley 1988; Deloche and Oguer 2006; Ingrao 2001; and Swirski 1996). Brams (2002) on the Bible is one of the few book-length attempts. O’Neill (1990, 2001) uses game theory to explain why Gawain accepts a bizarre challenge in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and why the knight in the poem Lai de l’Ombre cleverly responds to his lady’s refusal of his ring by dropping the ring into his lady’s reflection in a well. Chrissochoidis, Harmgart, Huck, and Müller (2010) argue that in the Richard Wagner opera, “Tannhäuser’s seemingly irrational behavior is actually consistent with a strategy of redemption” (see also Harmgart, Huck, and Müller 2009 and Chrissochoidis and Huck 2011).

This book similarly uses examples from literature, like the Beatrice-Benedick and Richard-Harrison examples, to introduce game-theoretic concepts, and similarly uses game theory to analyze strategic situations in literary works. However, this book makes a stronger claim, that literary works such as Austen’s novels and African American folktales are game theory, written and told with the explicit objective of theoretically analyzing strategic thinking.

This claim is similar to Livingston’s (1991, p. 51) claim that “not only are the concepts and issues related to rationality and irrationality directly relevant, and indeed, essential, to enquiries concerning literature, but literature in turn has genuine cognitive value in relation to questions of human rationality and irrationality.” For example, Theodore Dreiser explains a person’s imitation of another in terms of biological drives or animal instinct; in The Financier he even invokes an animal model, the black grouper, a fish that camouflages itself to match its surroundings. However, Livingston observes that Dreiser’s characters imitate in a goal-directed manner. In Sister Carrie (1900 [1981]), Carrie and her lover, Drouet, observe a woman walk by; Drouet remarks that she is a “fine stepper,” and thus Carrie thinks to herself, “If that was so fine she must look at it more closely. Instinctively she felt a desire to imitate it. Surely she could do that too” (p. 99). Although Dreiser describes Carrie’s desire to imitate as “instinctive,” Livingston (1991, p. 113) points out that “Carrie’s intentional attitudes and reasoning are indispensable parts of the episode: having been confronted with the proposition that a particular bit of behaviour is to be valued, she concludes that it must be observed more carefully; she asks herself whether it figures among the realm of her possible actions, [and] determines that this is indeed the case.” Indeed, “the claims made by Dreiser’s naturalist narrators are (p.32) flatly contradicted by other aspects of the work” (p. 84). Dreiser thus interestingly contrasts with Austen, whose stated theoretical stance on human action, emphasizing preferences, choice, and strategy, is largely consistent with how her characters act.

Livingston explores irrationality by looking at the life course of Lazare Chanteau in Émile Zola’s La Joie de Vivre (1883–84). Lazare attempts several different careers, including composing music, practicing medicine, and building a huge factory to extract valuable chemicals from seaweed, but gives up each at the slightest difficulty. Throughout Lazare thinks of each “project as a way of quickly manifesting his individual genius and singularity”; his mother is obsessed with “a public recovery of her imagined distinction and superiority” through her son (Livingston 1991, pp. 164, 176). Lazare is strategically unskilled: “he makes extremely naive judgements about the motives and capacities of others,” and while negotiating with his business partner, “fail[s] to take note of the fact that he is in a strategic situation where his interests require him to formulate expectations about the possible strategic actions of the other party” (pp. 175, 168). Lazare prefers the literal, taking his mother’s statements “at face value” and “attach[ing] far too much weight to what may be called erroneous ‘tutelary beliefs’. … [H]e frequently assumes that the information needed is all in the hands of some single authoritative individual” (pp. 177, 175). Livingston argues that Lazare is not simply stupid; what is interesting is the particular pattern of his stupidity. In his strategic naivety and preoccupation with status and literality, we can say that Lazare joins Flossie’s Fox and Austen’s Mr. Collins and Sir Walter Elliot in our analysis of cluelessness, in chapters 12 and 13.

Interactions between novelists and political economists in 19th-century Britain are explored by Gallagher (2006, pp. 2, 129), who finds that “political economists and their literary antagonists had a great deal in common, which they were frequently unwilling to recognize. … So even if George Eliot never read Jevons, the similarities between his theories of the role of surfeit in economic value and her theories of the decline of aesthetic value through repetition should not surprise us, for they were conceived in overlapping intellectual circles” (see also Levy 2001). In contrast, my claim is not that Austen necessarily interacted with the social science of her time, but that her development of game theory predated what would become part of social science 150 years later, and indeed that 200 years later we are still catching up to her insights.

As for Austen’s intellectual milieu, Knox-Shaw (2004, p. 5) finds that “Jane Austen is a writer of centrist views who derives in large measure from the Enlightenment, more particularly from that sceptical tradition within it that flourished in England and Scotland during the second half of the eighteenth century,” which includes Adam Smith (p.33) and David Hume. Knox-Shaw (2004, pp. 87–88) and Moler (1967) find Austen echoing specific passages from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759 [2009]), despite the argument by Rogers (2006, p. xliii) that Austen “was a novelist and we do her most serious art no service if we ask it to perform philosophic tasks in which she had little or no ascertainable interest.” Knox-Shaw (2004, p. 23) argues that Austen’s extreme attention to the details of social interaction is part of her empirical and scientific outlook, and “by analogy with other kinds of discourse that are empirically grounded, the ‘experimental’ novel does not need to offer a general theory in order to have real significance.” This is sympathetic to Austen but understates her theoretical contribution.

According to Butte (2004) and Zunshine (2007), Austen was particularly innovative in analyzing how her characters think about each other. For example, when Anne Elliot sees her sister Elizabeth coldly turn away after Captain Wentworth clearly wants to be acknowledged by her, Zunshine (2007, p. 279) notes that this can be understood as involving five levels of metaknowledge: “Anne realizes that Wentworth understands that Elizabeth pretends not to recognize that he wants to be acknowledged as an acquaintance.” Austen’s novels are considered to be among the first to continuously employ free indirect style, in which it is not explicitly indicated whether a thought is a character’s or the narrator’s, thus creating an “apparently unmediated representation that creates the illusion of entry into the consciousness of fictional characters” (Bender 1987, p. 177; see also Finch and Bowen 1990 and Bray 2007). For Butte (2004, pp. 25–26), Austen’s novels are a “sea change in the representation of consciousnesses in narratives … not only of consciousness, but also of consciousnesses, of a newly framed intersubjectivity.” Zunshine (2006) argues that literature exercises and develops the reader’s theory of mind, by making the reader keep track of what each character knows about others, and that the main reason why people read fiction in general is to get this exercise. Indeed, Oatley (2011) finds evidence that people who read more fiction have better theory of mind skills.

In contrast, my claim is more specific: certain specific (not all) literary works explore and teach strategic thinking not just by making the reader follow each character’s knowledge of the knowledge of others, but also by exploring each character’s preferences and choices in strategic situations. Theory of mind is essential but just one part of strategic thinking. For example, Captain Wentworth asks his sister Mrs. Croft to ask the fatigued Anne Elliot to join her and Admiral Croft in their carriage, because he knows that Anne would decline his own suggestion but cannot refuse his sister’s request. Here Captain Wentworth considers not just what Anne knows but also her preferences and how she will (p.34) choose; coming up with the idea of asking his sister to ask Anne also requires cleverness and creativity. In other words, Austen is interested not just in interacting knowledge or intersubjectivity, but in interacting actions: how a person’s choices interact with the choices of others.

Many have noticed Austen’s hardheadedness on economic matters. For example, Vermeule (2010, pp. 178, 185) writes, “The more I read Emma, the more I realize how devastating Austen’s vision of human psychology is. Her characters are locked in fierce but largely unconscious battle over a small passel of land and all the good things that flow from it. … [T]he novel is a sophisticated hydraulic system for producing a guided distribution of resources.” One might say that Austen’s economic “realism” is just part of her overall treatment of strategic thinking, which applies to many situations, not just economic ones. In 1949, Bill Phillips (of the “Phillips curve”) built a hydraulic computer, with water flowing through tubes, valves, and tanks, to model an economy (see Leeson 2000). Since then, the standard criticism of such (in this case literally) “mechanistic” models is that they need to incorporate how people in an economy anticipate each other’s actions. Also, I suggest that Austen’s characters, fierce in battle, strategize consciously.