It’s not every day that someone stumbles upon a major new strategic thinker during family movie night. But that’s what happened to Michael Chwe, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, when he sat down with his children some eight years ago to watch “Clueless,” the 1995 romantic comedy based on Jane Austen’s “Emma.”
Mr. Chwe (pronounced CHEH), the author of papers like “Farsighted Coalitional Stability” and “Anonymous Procedures for Condorcet’s Model: Robustness, Nonmonotonicity and Optimality,” had never cracked “Emma” or “Pride and Prejudice.” But on screen, he saw glimmers of a strategic intelligence that would make Henry Kissinger blush.
“This movie was all about manipulation,” Mr. Chwe, a practitioner of the hard-nosed science of game theory, said recently by telephone. “I had always been taught that game theory was a mathematical thing. But when you think about it, people have been thinking about strategic action for a long time.”
Mr. Chwe set to doing his English homework, and now his assignment is in. “Jane Austen, Game Theorist,” just published by Princeton University Press, is more than the larky scholarly equivalent of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” In 230 diagram-heavy pages, 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.
Or, as Mr. Chwe puts it in the book, “Anyone interested in human behavior should read Austen because her research program has results.”
Modern game theory is generally dated to 1944, with the publication of von Neumann’s “Theory of Games and Economic Behavior,” which imagined human interactions as a series of moves and countermoves aimed at maximizing “payoff.” Since then the discipline has thrived, often dominating political science, economics and biology departments with densely mathematical analyses of phenomena as diverse as nuclear brinkmanship, the fate of protest movements, stock trading and predator behavior.
But a century and a half earlier, Mr. Chwe argues, Austen was very deliberately trying to lay philosophical groundwork for a new theory of strategic action, sometimes charting territory that today’s theoreticians have themselves failed to reach.
First among her as yet unequaled concepts is “cluelessness,” which in Mr. Chwe’s analysis isn’t just tween-friendly slang but an analytic concept worthy of consideration alongside game-theoretic chestnuts like “zero-sum,” “risk dominance” and “prisoner’s dilemma.”
Most game theory, he noted, treats players as equally “rational” parties sitting across a chessboard. But many situations, Mr. Chwe points out, involve parties with unequal levels of strategic thinking. Sometimes a party may simply lack ability. But sometimes a powerful party faced with a weaker one may not realize it even needs to think strategically.
Take the scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands that Elizabeth Bennet promise not to marry Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth refuses to promise, and Lady Catherine repeats this to Mr. Darcy as an example of her insolence — not realizing that she is helping Elizabeth indirectly signal to Mr. Darcy that she is still interested.
It’s a classic case of cluelessness, which is distinct from garden-variety stupidity, Mr. Chwe argues. “Lady Catherine doesn’t even think that Elizabeth” — her social inferior — “could be manipulating her,” he said. (Ditto for Mr. Darcy: gender differences can also “cause cluelessness,” he noted, though Austen was generally more tolerant of the male variety.)
The phenomenon is hardly limited to Austen’s fictional rural society. In a chapter called “Real-World Cluelessness,” Mr. Chwe argues that the moralistic American reaction to the 2004 killing and mutilation of four private security guards working with the American military in Falluja — L. Paul Bremer III, leader of the American occupation of Iraq, later compared the killers to “human jackals”— obscured a strategic truth: that striking back at the city as a whole would only be counterproductive.
“Calling your enemy an animal might improve your bargaining position or deaden your moral qualms, but at the expense of not being able to think about your enemy strategically,” Mr. Chwe writes.
The darker side of Austen is hardly unknown to literary scholars. “Regulated Hatred,” a classic 1940 paper by the psychologist D. W. Harding, argued that her novels explored containment strategies against the “eruption of fear and hatred into the relationships of everyday social life.”
But Mr. Chwe, who identifies some 50 “strategic manipulations” in Austen (in addition to a chapter on the sophisticated “folk game theory” insights in traditional African tales), is more interested in exploring the softer side of game theory. Game theory, he argues, isn’t just part of “hegemonic cold war discourse,” but what the political scientist James Scott called a subversive “weapon of the weak.”
Such analysis may not go over well with military types, to say nothing of literary scholars, many of whom see books like Mr. Chwe’s or “Graphing Jane Austen,” an anthology of Darwinian literary criticism published last year, as examples of ham-handed scientific imperialism.
“These ostensibly interdisciplinary efforts are sometimes seen as attempts to validate the humanities by attaching them to more empirical disciplines,” said Jonathan Kramnick, a professor of English at Johns Hopkins and the author of the 2011 essay “Against Literary Darwinism,” who has not read Mr. Chwe’s book. “But for some, myself included, literary studies doesn’t need to attach itself to any other discipline.” Even some humanists who admire Mr. Chwe’s work suggest that when it comes to appreciating Austen, social scientists may be the clueless ones. Austen scholars “will not be surprised at all to see the depths of her grasp of strategic thinking and the way she anticipated a 20th-century field of inquiry,” Laura J. Rosenthal, a specialist in 18th-century British literature at the University of Maryland, said via e-mail.
As for Mr. Chwe, he said he was happy if he could spread Janeism among the game-playing wonks. And which Austen character would he want leading America in a nuclear showdown?
Easy, he said with a laugh: “I would want Austen herself.