There’s a famous scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in which Mr. Darcy’s aunt, the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, tries -- and fails, spectacularly -- to browbeat the heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, into promising not to marry Mr. Darcy. For Austen fans, Elizabeth’s refusal to make such a promise is just more evidence how smart, strong and sassy a heroine she is.
For UCLA political science professor Michael Chwe, it’s an example of something else altogether: strategic game theory, or the study of how people optimize choice when interacting with others. In his new book, Jane Austen: Game Theorist, Chwe aims to show that Austen, in fact, was one of the earliest game strategists.
In the case of Pride and Prejudice, Chwe says Lady Catherine’s fatal
flaw lies in her failure to recognize that Elizabeth’s refusal will actually spur Mr. Darcy, who still pines for Elizabeth, into action. As Darcy tells Elizabeth after the fact: “It taught me to hope as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before. I knew enough of your disposition to be certain that, had you been absolutely, irrevocably decided against me, you would have acknowledged it to Lady Catherine, frankly and openly." Chwe says this example of Lady Catherine’s “cluelessness” shows how she is ultimately outsmarted as Elizabeth and Darcy marry.
I asked Chwe how Austen’s strategic thinking is applicable today and to share his favorite example of what he calls “strategic manipulations” -- examples of how her heroines outsmart others -- in her work