Friday, May 10, 2013

Michael Suk-Young Chwe's "Jane Austen, Game Theorist"

Michael Suk-Young Chwe is associate professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist, and reported the following:
Page 99 discusses a favorite, and most revealing, episode in Austen's Mansfield Park. Fanny Price, a young and seemingly powerless girl adopted into the Bertram family, must make a decision. She has an amber cross ornament, a gift from her beloved brother William, but has nothing to wear it with for the upcoming ball. Mary Crawford, the sister of Henry Crawford, a young man who may be toying with Fanny, gives Fanny a gold necklace. Edmund Bertram, the caring young man whom Fanny really likes, gives Fanny a gold chain. Fanny must now choose between Mary's necklace and Edmund's chain.

This choice is difficult because Edmund likes Mary and even perhaps intends to marry her, and thus Edmund asks Fanny to wear Mary's necklace in order to show her gratitude toward Mary. But Fanny would much rather wear Edmund's chain.

Fanny is relieved to find that "upon trial the one given her by Miss Crawford would by no means go through the ring of the cross. She had, to oblige Edmund, resolved to wear it—but it was too large for the purpose. His therefore must be worn; and having, with delightful feelings, joined the chain and the cross, those memorials of the two most beloved of her heart . . . she was able, without an effort, to resolve on wearing Miss Crawford's necklace too" (Mansfield Park, chapter 27).

My book argues that Jane Austen anticipated many ideas now considered to be part of game theory, the mathematical analysis of strategic thinking. Game theory explains people's behavior in terms of their choices. A favorite game theory result is that sometimes not having a choice can be better. Fanny choosing between necklace and chain is Austen's illustration of this result: by not being able to choose, Fanny can wear Edmund's chain blamelessly. But Austen, who is committed to the "power of choice," is not content to leave it at this: she has Fanny choose to wear Mary's necklace too. As my book notes on page 99, "Even when it seems better not to have to make a choice, Austen shows that another choice can make things better still."
Learn more about the book and author at the Jane Austen, Game Theorist website.

--Marshal Zeringue