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From 2-3 PM today, author Michael Chwe takes your questions about his new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist

05.30.13

Chwe_bookJane Austen: novelist ... spinster ... social scientist?

Game theory—how people people make choices while interacting with others—is one of the most popular subjects in social science today.  But Michael Chwe says Jane Austen was exploring game theory’s core ideas in her six novels roughly two hundred years ago.  His book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist, was published on April 21 by Princeton University Press.

In the book, Chwe writes, "Austen's novels are game theory textbooks.  She's trying to get readers to use their higher thinking skills and to think strategically."

Michael Chwe is an associate professor of political science at UCLA.  His favorite Loh Down is Opera for Apes.

His book's website is http://janeaustengametheorist.com. Links to several booksellers are along the left-hand side.

Put your questions about Jane Austen as a game theorist in a comment below.  Michael Chwe will respond from 2-3 p.m. PST today!

71 COMMENTS

norindra

what criticisms do you think Jane Austen would have had of game theory? What does it perhaps not attend to that she would have thought is important?

Tough Cookie

Actually, I don’t even know what Game Theory is….
Don’t most novelists have characters doing this?

Michael Chwe

Hi norindra—the essential assumption in game theory is that people think strategically—before acting, they anticipate the actions of others. Sometimes, however, we observe the conspicuous absence of strategic thinking: someone who acts without anticipating how others will react. In the book, I call this “cluelessness.” One example is when the US invaded Iraq, the resulting insurgency came at a complete surprise to US leaders, even though anyone who puts herself in the shoes of an Iraqi commander would realize the futility of fighting the US conventionally.

Austen has many examples of high-status, privileged people who blunder decisively because they do not anticipate the strategicness of others. For example, in Northanger Abbey, General Tilney has been trying to match up his son Henry with Catherine Morland because he thinks she is a wealthy heiress. When the General finds that she is not, he kicks out Catherine from his home in a very abrupt and severe manner. His mistreatment of Catherine generates Henry’s sympathy and thus makes Henry love Catherine even more. All this is easily foreseeable, but General Tilney does not think about Henry as having his own mind and his own motivations.

Austen suggests several reasons for cluelessness, the conspicuous absence of strategic thinking. Some have to do with status: a high-status person thinks that he is not supposed to put himself in the mind of a low-status person, for example. In trying to explain cluelessness, Austen goes beyond modern game theory. There is some very recent research in game theory about people’s ability to understand the strategicness of others, so we are catching up to her.

Michael Chwe

Hi Tough Cookie—game theory is the study of how people make decisions in anticipation of the actions of others. For example, if Apple introduces a low-cost iPhone for emerging markets, it has to consider whether Huawei and Samsung will release an even cheaper cell phone in response. Game theory provides a mathematical framework for describing these situations, which are ubiquitous in social life. But game theory does not have to be mathematical: Austen does not use math, and Tom Schelling, who won the Nobel Prize in economics, does not use much math either.

Of course, almost all novelists have their characters make decisions in interaction with others. But my argument is more than just saying that Austen put her characters in interesting strategic situations. My claim is that Austen is interested in strategic thinking as a topic in itself, and is analyzing strategic thinking in a theoretical, systematic manner. For example, she actually gives explicit names for strategic thinking: she calls the ability to predict another person’s action “foresight” or “penetration.” She discusses competing explanations for social phenomena: for example, twice she asks whether a person’s actions can by habit or interest, and both times she concludes that interest (i.e. preferences and choice) is more important.

Ducky

hi Michael,

Very often, I hear women saying that men are clueless. As a game theorist, do you think women have more “game” than men?

Hogwarts Mom

Not to throw gas onto flame here (but why not?), but what’s the difference between “cluelessness” and Asperger’s? Are we to redefine Asperger’s as “unskilled at game theory”? (Although one hates to imply General Tilney was a genius.)

Dr. Behrens

In Northanger Abbey Austen writes: “But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty
surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.”
Seems Austen is contexting the novelist (plot-maker) as the ultimate gamer?

Michael Chwe

Hi Ducky—there is some evidence for example that men are worse than women at figuring out others’ emotional states by looking at pictures of their eyes. Strategic thinking involves estimating the preferences (and feelings) of others, so in this aspect men might be worse than women. Strategic thinking also involves putting yourself into the mind of another (to understand how another person will act, it helps to put yourself in that person’s shoes), and to the extent that there are sex differences in this ability, this would also affect one’s strategic thinking ability.

Context is also important; one person might be very bad at strategic thinking in the arena of courtship, cocktail parties, etc., but be good in the arena of war or board games, etc., and vice versa. Captain Wentworth, in Austen’s Persuasion, is a skilled naval officer but is pretty bad at thinking strategically in the arena of courtship.

In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney says, “No one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” In other words, women might have more natural talent but men might make up for it with greater effort.

There is some research by the economist Catherine Eckel on sex differences in negotiation games, and I’m sure that there is more research which I am not aware of yet (I can ask around).

In the book, I do mention an anecdote from my personal experience. When my son finished elementary school, I was in charge of the string section for the culmination performance. I assigned Matthew to first violin and Georgia to second violin (both were in fifth grade). The parts were equally difficult but some people think first violin has higher status. Georgia told me that she should play first violin because she was better than Matthew. But then she told me that she would drop the issue because if she told Matthew that she was better, Matthew would get mad. So she told me she was happy where she was. I am sure that Matthew (as a boy) did not think this way at all. Here Georgia, a girl, was much more able to predict what Matthew would do as a result of her action. It is obvious that Georgia was a better strategic thinker. But this ability did not work to her advantage. If Matthew were second violin, he undoubtedly would have complained without thinking what Georgia would do. Here, Matthew’s inability to think strategically gives him an advantage.

Michael Chwe

Hi Hogwarts Mom—your question actually relates to Ducky’s question. Some people have argued that autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can be understood as an “extremely male” brain. Some have argued that an essential aspect of autism and Asperger’s is a weak “theory of mind,” the ability to put yourself in the mind of another. So these arguments might lead one to the conclusion that people on the ASD spectrum and men in general are worse at strategic thinking than neurotypicals and women. As far as I know, there is only one paper which has people on the ASD spectrum playing games in the lab (a paper by David Sally and Elizabeth Hill in 2006).

There are some who argue that people on the ASD spectrum have fine theory of mind skills, they just operate differently (for example, Temple Grandin argues that her theory of mind operates visually). This is an area of active research in psychology.

Sandra and I went to Caltech, where essentially everyone is on the ASD spectrum (poor eye contact, good at math, terrible social skills, etc.!) and I kind of see being on the spectrum as kind of a personality trait. Of course, many of our classmates were excellent chess players (for example) and could definitely think strategically. This may be where context comes in: being a good strategic thinker in chess (in which rules are clearly defined) might not make you a good strategic thinker in cocktail parties (in which rules are not clearly defined).

Interestingly, several of Austen’s clueless characters (like General Tilney), do seem to have personality characteristics related to ASD. General Tilney misreads Catherine Morland’s eyes , and “could not forego the pleasure of pacing out the length” of the dining room, when showing Northanger Abbey to Catherine. There is a book by Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer which looks at Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of autism.

Michael Chwe

Hi Dr. Behrens—yes, I agree. All six novels start with some sort of manipulation (for example, Emma starts with Emma’s declaring that she has matched up her governess Miss Taylor with Mr. Weston, Pride and Prejudice starts with Mrs. Bennet having Jane visit Netherfield on horseback so she will spend more time with Mr. Bingley). Like you say, Northanger Abbey starts with the manipulation of an unnamed actor who “throw[s] a hero in her way.” In Emma, a puzzle posed right at the start is how Emma marrying will be reconciled with her wanting to take care of her widowed father Mr. Woodhouse, who hates being alone. This puzzle is solved right at the end, when chicken coop burglars are rumored to be in the neighborhood, thus scaring Mr. Woodhouse into inviting Mr. Darcy to live with them as resident son-in-law. Austen is saying to us, “Here is a puzzle, a challenge to your strategic thinking ability. How will you solve it? You have the entire book to think about it. Guess what—I can solve it easily.”

Ducky

I believe you are a real Austen fan. Which is your favorite book and character?

Michael Chwe

Hi Ducky—thanks! I love all six, and I see them as all sharing the same worldview. I hate to pick favorites, but I would have to say that I like Mansfield Park and Persuasion the best and Pride and Prejudice the least. To me, Mansfield Park is the deepest because it is about the development of Fanny Price’s personhood (in comparison, Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood are pretty well-formed from the start). Anne Elliot in Persuasion is quite mature and strategically skilled, but similarly she must overcome Lady Russell and learn to trust in her own decisions. Also, of all Austen’s male characters, I personally relate to Captain Wentworth (in Persuasion) the most—to me, Mr. Knightley is too wise and Mr. Darcy is too much of a prick (although of course he redeems himself). Like Captain Wentworth, I find myself having to “get over myself” a lot. To me, Pride and Prejudice is a lot of fun, but the characters do not grow and change as much as in the other books; in this way it is the shallowest.

Hogwarts Mom

Ohhhh noooo!!! Say it ain’t so! Persuasion is so dark and murky and late (wasn’t it the last one, maybe not even completely finished)? But I suppose I see your point.

Veggie 52

So how is game theory different than just being really emphathetic?

Dr. Behrens

Pride and Prejudice is by far the most popular (and continues to be made into TV shows and movies) so perhaps that implies young women are more partial to game theory than to personal growth.

Hogwarts Mom

LOL , Dr. Behrens, what was your first clue? ;)

Dan R.

Several weeks ago on the loh down I heard something about male birds who could guess what females would prefer to eat and then give it to them. They said it’s called “state attribution” (I remembered because I work for the state). Is this the same thing as game theory? So maybe animals do it too?

Michael Chwe

Hi Hogwarts Mom and Dr. Behrens—personally, I am glad I first came upon Austen’s books in my 40s. If I had read them in my 20s, I don’t think I would have liked them very much. I think that Pride and Prejudice is popular because (for understandable reasons) people like bright, energetic characters. But to me, Fanny Price (of Mansfield Park) is the most bad-a** of them all—she is the only Austen heroine who sticks to her guns and does not waver from what she wants (Edmund Bertram) in the face of complete opposition from her family and friends.

Michael Chwe

Hi Veggie 52—game theory is not the same thing as being good at strategic thinking (which involves putting yourself in the minds of others). Game theory is the theoretical and systematic study of strategic thinking. It’s kind of like the difference between kinesiology (the scientific study of human movement) and being good at tennis. Having a good serve doesn’t mean you know any kinesiology, and being a kinesiologist does not mean you are a great athlete. But lessons from kinesiology can help one get a better tennis serve. Similarly, insights from game theory can help you in strategic situations.

Veggie 52

Thank you for clarifying! I see you already said that to other commenters, but it just didn’t “click” until now.

C Lee

Just joining Any other examples of writers or works of art that you could say use game theory? And isn’t it just plot? Shakespeare?

Wu Ji

Who says “personal growth” isn’t a strategy?

Randy K

What about poker? Numerical strategy AND reading faces?

Michael Chwe

Hi Dan R.—the example about the male birds is interesting—I hadn’t heard of it before. I’m not an expert in this, but there is evidence that chimpanzees do not have a “theory of mind” like humans do. For example, Povinelli and Vonk (2003) find that chimpanzees will still make a begging motion (for food) to human trainers even when the humans are wearing obvious blindfolds. At the same time, it seems obvious that animals of all sorts are aware of when their children are hungry, what they like to eat, etc. and can understand this mental state. I remember watching Kratt’s Creatures (an animal program for kids) which said that when gnu became aware of hyenas (?) stalking them at a watering hole, the gnu would walk toward the hyenas to show the hyenas that it was aware that it was being stalked. I suppose one question is whether an animal is acting just on the basis of habit (my kids liked worms last time, so I will try feeding them worms again) or whether the animal is actively thinking about her kids’ mental states.

Povinelli and Vonk’s paper is at
http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/chwe/austen/povinellivonk.pdf

Oskar Sonntag

Does the application of game theory to Austen’s oeuvre represent an explication/ extrapolation of game theory or is it meant to elaborate on quantifiable analysis as literary criticism?
Austen’s “comedy of manners” poses social/ class antagonisms as plot drivers. In the context of conventional narrative structure, isn’t every protagonist’s set of choices reflective of game theory?

Sandra Tsing Loh

A belated welcome, Michael! I see you’ve already been busy! I believe since you are UCLA we are in the same time zone.

Let me ask an initial slate of questions which you can answer in turn.

1) For our readers, when was the moment this idea of Austen as game theorist came to you?

2) It is said you practice “humanomics” masterfully. Can you explain the term?

3) You suggest people in power can be quite clueless (they can’t imagine their inferiors think
of themselves of anything but slaves). I wonder why “revolution” isn’t easier then?

4) You make fascinating reference to cluelessness in the U.S.’s attack on Fallujah in April, 2004.
Can you explain for our readers?

5) Austen was regarded as among the first novelists (officially the first novel, as I think I learned
at Caltech is Pamela). Do you have any ideas about the 21st century “collapse” of the novel
(and hence of intelligible game theory)?

And back to you. . . ! (Good luck, you’re going to have to type fast!)

Nick

Whats your favorite game and why?

Michael Chwe

Hi C Lee—I think that many writers, including Shakespeare, explore strategic reasoning (my book has a short discussion of Much Ado About Nothing). You’re right that almost all plots involve strategic thinking (people anticipating what others will do). I focused on Austen just because I fell into it, and I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of English literature from a game-theoretic point of view. I will say that Austen is perhaps unusual in that she actively theorizes about strategic thinking (that’s my argument, anyhow). Like I mentioned in my answer to Tough Cookie above, Austen gives strategic thinking names (“penetration,” “foresight,” “sagacity”).

In Mansfield Park, Austen includes seven examples of “reference dependence” (how one’s value for something can be influenced by the status quo reference which it is compared to). For example, Sir Thomas sends Fanny Price to Portsmouth because he thinks that Fanny will value Henry Crawford’s proposal more when it is compared to the squalor of Portsmouth as opposed to the gentility of Mansfield Park. Another example is how Edmund Bertram observes that William Price’s lieutenant uniform will be glorious now (compared with being a midshipman) but a “badge of disgrace” in a few years (when others are being promoted to commander). Seven examples of the same phenomenon cannot be a coincidence. The remaining conclusion is that Austen was explicitly interested in reference dependence as a phenomenon in itself.

Michael Chwe

Hi Randy K—yes, I would say reading faces as well as explicit mathematical game theory (which apparently all expert poker players know) are part of expert strategic thinking.

Marcia Seligson

Totally new to game theory and way behind here. But I imagine game theorists make a distinction between a board game like “Sorry” (which can depend or not on cooperation) vs. chess (which is straight strategy–or is it?).

Michael Chwe

Hi Sandra! It’s great to be here and talking—it’s been a long time (30 years!) since our poetry class days at Caltech.

1. I first got exposed to Austen from watching the movie “Clueless” with my kids. I then watched other Austen adaptations and then read Emma. I had been working on game theory in African American folktales, etc. and Emma fit right in. I thought I would just write about game theory in Emma, but then I figured I might as well read all six novels, and then of course I was hooked.

2. “Humanomics” is Deidre McCloskey’s term. Most people think of economics as a dry and reductive subject in which people are reduced to machine-like consumers and producers, but all of the best economists I know (including McCloskey of course) have a quite well-rounded understanding (and curiosity) about how humans behave. McCloskey is trying to get economists to embrace this more in our writing and research. Economics (and game theory) has many powerful insights, and when married to a wide sense of what they can be applied to, and to a wide sense of how people act in the world, the result will be even more powerful, I think.

Alice

When you are teaching game theory, do you use Austen examples? Do you think you might have enjoyed her in your 20s if she had been presented in a game theory context?

SciGal4

Sigh! What happens to all of Jane Austen’s ritualized mating dances in the face of the chaos of modern “romances”???
No clue!!! There is no status or land to trade or fathers to negotiate or anything!!!

Michael Chwe

3. Revolution in general is difficult because people with power like to keep it. There are lots of cases, however, in which powerful people make obvious mistakes because of their cluelessness. A recent example is Nicolae Ceausescu, who in order to shore up his power, organized a huge rally. But people starting chanting against him during the rally, and this was televised. If you’re worried about a possible revolution against you, probably the last thing you should do is to create a possible media event for your opposition.

Disruptor 59

BTW Sandra: “Pamela or Virtue Rewarded” was indeed the first “English” novel, but it was written by Samuel Richardson, not Austen…

Michael Chwe

4. I talk about the US attack on Fallujah in the book. As was widely reported, some US citizens working for Blackwater were killed and their bodies mutilated, and hung from a bridge, in Fallujah in March 2004. In response, perceiving an attack to the status of the US, President Bush ordered the US military to attack Fallujah, which was a public relations nightmare, with many civilians killed. In September 2004, US military leaders admitted that the attack was a mistake, and thought that it should have been handled as a police operation—it would not have been that difficult to track down the killers and arrest them. US military leaders admitted that the attack had fundamental strategic flaws (a lack of surprise, for one thing). But the US thought of the situation not strategically but in terms of a status challenge. One of the themes in the book is how an overattention to status (like Austen’s Lady Catherine) can cause poor strategic thinking.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Keep typing, Michael. . . You’re doing great. I find myself staring at and re-reading a brilliant comment you wrote way back at 2:05 p.m.
Being a left-brained techer (who teaches writing), I LOVE the diagrams in your book (with decision trees concerned possibilities and
outcomes). I am wondering if there is a great book about teaching how to PLOT in your future? (I teach character wheels, where
you construct a cast of characters based on opposites and on the conflicting dynamics they bring out in each other.)

Sandra Tsing Loh

Do I remember you from Caltech, Disruptor 59? (And yes, all of those were NOT by Austen, I am thinking Pamela, Shamela, Tristram Shandy and more. . . And I am boldly doing this without Wiki-ing.) I am thinking the opposite of a game theory novel is the “picaresque.”

Michael Chwe

5. I’m not the best person to ask about the “collapse” of the novel in the 21st century. I don’t think I have the overall perspective about literature that a literature scholar would have. I would say that some people have argued that the novel itself is the product of a certain historical time period (early capitalism, the economics of publishing houses, etc.) and that we might be entering into a new era. One of my colleagues at UCLA once said that with the rise of the mini-series (House of Cards, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, etc.) we are going back to the ancient mode of storytelling, that of epic sagas which are told and embellished periodically over time (like the Odyssey, Beowulf, etc.).

Hogwarts Mom

LOL SciGal4 Perhaps it’s the applied game theory of creating the perfect match.com or EHarmony profile

Disruptor 59

Not to be a drag or anything — and I do find this thread intriguing — I have to say I personally find Austen’s characters, their predicaments and manipulations a bit banal and finally quite boring. The travails of the landed gentry don’t really engage a lot of interest for me.
That said, why not apply a rigorous formulation of quantified semantics on it all… just sayin’.

Mr. Darcy

SciGal4, Hogwarts Mom. . . You rang?

Michael Chwe

Hi Oskar—the book does not so much “apply game theory to Austen” (for example, as does a book by Steven Brams on the Bible and his recent book on game theory and the humanities), but rather argues that Austen herself was a game theorist, i.e. was theoretically and systematically analyzing strategic thinking. The book does not engage in quantitative (i.e. statistical) analysis of Austen’s texts. Yes, in some sense any plot involves people making choices and anticipating the actions of others, but (as mentioned in the posts above) my argument is that Austen actually explicitly theorized strategic thinking: she was trying to develop kinesiology, not just talk about how to work on your tennis serve.

Michael Chwe

Hi Nick—I am actually pretty bad at actual games. I thought I was hip by playing Settlers of Catan with my kids, but one of my friends who is into games told me I was stuck in the 90s, and so last week we got Seven Wonders, and I’ve been playing it. It’s good fun and game play moves quickly.

Michael Chwe

Hi Marcia Seligson—game theorists do make a distinction between “zero-sum” games (in which cooperation is not possible, like chess), and games which seem to be all about cooperation (like rebelling against a dictatorial regime, Sandra’s example). A lot of what is interesting about game theory is about how social situations combine both cooperative and competitive elements. There is a book called “Coopetition” written by game theorists Brandenburger and Nalebuff, for example.

LA_Sci_Mom

If you get a chance, I’m pretty interested in Marcia Seligson’s earlier question about Sorry vs. Chess.

Disruptor 59

Sandra- I audited some classes at Caltech back in the day… the “picaresque” I would say exemplifies cluelessness…?

Michael Chwe

Hi Alice—I do use Austen examples in my teaching (as well as examples from Richard Wright, African American folktales, and many movie clips, like the chicken game in Rebel Without a Cause). I don’t know if I would have liked Austen in my 20s even had it been presented in a game theoretic context, because in my 20s I knew less about life and also had a more narrow conception about what social science theorizing was about. One message of the book is that novelists (some of them at least) can be social theorists just as much as “social scientists” are.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Michael, I just scrolled down to your poignant tale of your kids Matthew and Georgia (which this NON-Tiger Mom couldn’t help noticing were first and second violin!). In that case, Georgia was more skilled in game theory, but it did not result in her getting an advantage (given that her more “loutish” brother remained first violin).

It reminded me of this Loh Down of altruists vs. louts (sharing sushi, outcome was the same regardless of motivation):

http://www.lohdownonscience.org/podcast/altruists-vs-louts/

I wonder if there is another book here where “good” people (non-profits) can use the techniques of game theory to. . . er, make the world a better place?
(Is that too self-helpy? But I’d love to learn how to put theory–let’s call it Caltech smarts–into practice.)

Michael Chwe

Hi SciGal4—one of my friends told me that these days, with so many ways to communicate, she and her girlfriends constantly and quite explicitly strategize about what to do in courtship. For example, if a guy texts you, should you text back? Is calling back too strong? If you call back, and then he doesn’t call back, should you take that as a sign of disinterest? Maybe you shouldn’t have called in the first place, thus allowing him to not call you back. Should you text him after he doesn’t call back? If he does call back, how long should you wait before calling him (or texting him) back? It’s kind of confusing!

Nick

Do you like Minecraft?

Michael Chwe

Sandra—I competely agree. There should be a way to use game theory or some sort of other (mathematical?) methodology to figure out how to construct interesting plots in which everyone’s motivation makes perfect sense but which results in an unexpected, surprising outcome. One of my friends, Kim Costello, is a screenwriter, and she says that when she teaches screenwriting, her students tend to focus on the “how” of the plot (how a person mistakenly thinks that her husband is having an affair, for example), while she is always trying to get them to focus on the “why”—what people’s motivations are. If you have people’s motivations well set, the how kind of follows naturally.

In some sense, novelists, screenwriters, etc. are constructing a “lab” or “simulation” in which a bunch of people are interacting, with all different motivations, and which results in an unexpected outcome. Game theory is kind of the same thing.

wu ji

Wait 12 hours before texting back…

PB-and-J-in-LA

I’d be interested in an entire book about Matthew and Georgia from a game theory perspective! Does game theory take gender into account, or all all “players” considered equal in all ways?

Sandra Tsing Loh

Disrupter59, still scratching my head over “rigorous formulation of quantified semantics” (which reminds me why I left Caltech, my eye is starting to twitch the same way it did over Quantum Mechanics) but I’m going to sign off on some general equation of cluelessness and the picaresque. Maybe the picaresque only works with clueless characters. (Now am I thinking of Tom Jones. . . Or Candide? Getting way into literary trouble here.)

Michael Chwe

By the way, I myself am wiki-ing as I answer!

Hi Disruptor 59—my daughter isn’t into Austen very much for similar reasons—she just can’t relate to the objective of getting married. All I would say is that (to me) the novels are more about how people interact with each other in extremely clever and well-thought-out ways, and not so much about the historical specifics of the English gentry, etc. If you’re new to Austen, I recommend Persuasion as it is the shortest.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Of course, in a novel, there is the all-powerful author, and in game theory. . . is there a God who designs the game? Now you’re making me thinking about Borges, and of course “The Universal Baseball Association. . . J. Henry Waugh, Esq.” by Robert Coover, a fairly obscure but wonderful novel (which I was going to do my thesis on, if only).

Ducky

Are clueless people happier?

Oskar Sonntag

Borges and Coover were precursors of post-modernism, which as a genre is (was) strategically selective.

Michael Chwe

Sandra, I once asked my daughter if I were a Tiger Mom, and she replied, “No, you’re more of a sloth Dad.”

Game theory has been used to make the world a better place—the work of Al Roth (Nobel laureate in economics) on matching mechanisms (assigning medical residents to hospitals, matching organ donors to people who need them, etc.) is a great example of how game theory can be used to solve practical problems. A lot of economic theory is not really “ideological”— a lot of it is just solving practical problems.

One of the reasons I like Austen’s Persuasion so much is because it shows how two parties (Anne and Captain Wentworth), who are both unsure of their feelings for each other, can use very clever actions to show their true feelings with little risk to themselves. For example, Capt. Wentworth asks his sister Mrs. Croft to insist that Anne accompany her in the carriage instead of walking. These techniques, if studied systematically, might apply to many situations (for example, between countries, or between spouses) in which, because of uncertainty, bad outcomes (i.e. war) might result. Thus the entire question is how to make it possible to reveal your peaceful feelings safely.

Michael Chwe

Hi Nick—I’ve never played Minecraft. My son plays World of Warcraft, though. Minecraft (from what I’ve read) is a great example of how environments can be set up which encourage creativity and cooperation.

Sandra Tsing Loh

As we enter our last five minutes of chat, thanks to all of you for your great questions (and observations) and thanks to Michael for being such a great sport. Two final questions:

1) Do you think you have finally “rewritten” the character archetype of the Caltech Asian Male? You’re into Austen! I think you totally have!

2) It is customary to have our authors answer (or at least guess) the Loh Down on Science’s Question of the Day. In your honor, tomorrow’s has Jane Austen in it, but we didn’t want it to be too easy for you. (And note how we say no Wikipedia! Although to be fair, the most convenient possible way to get all these answers is just to type terms into the Loh Down on Science’s search engine. . . But what fun would that be?)

So! Michael! Father of Georgia and Matthew!

Question of the Day:
(no Wikipedia—just think!)

60% of air pollution made by cows comes from:

Cow farts
Cow burps
Cow manure lagoons

What say you, sir?

Michael Chwe

Hi PB-and-J-in-LA—game theory usually assumes that everyone is rational, everyone knows that everyone else is rational, etc. There is some recent work which interrogates this assumption, though. I think that a lot of game theorists would be interested in how gender can get involved (like in the Georgia and Matthew example!). I suppose McCloskey would call this moving in the direction of “humanomics.” I’ll work on the Matthew and Georgia book, thanks!

Dr. Behrens

Ducky, you remind me that the movie version of Pride and Prejudice was called “Clueless.” Coincidence?

Michael Chwe

Hi Sandra—I’ve only read a little of Borges and none of Coover, so I will check it out. In game theory, the analyst (i.e. the social scientist) writes down the game, hoping that it plausibly describes the actual situation. When the game theorist analyzes the game, she assumes that all players know the game itself and operate within it. There are a lot of assumptions involved, but you have to assume something.

For example, in one well-known example, the US government organized an elaborate auction to auction off cell-phone spectrum in the 1990s. Many game theorists worked on this project (some hired by the US govt, some by carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, etc.). If I remember correctly, what happened is that some shell firms bid high prices for the spectra, and thus were awarded rights to it, but immediately went bankrupt because the prices were too high. Even bankrupt, these shell firms still had rights to the spectrum, and thus had to sell the rights in liquidation to another carrier. This way, carriers could get the spectrum at a much lower price than the shell firms originally bid for them. This was a strategem which was completely unanticipated by the people who designed the auction.

Michael Chwe

Hi Ducky—I don’t know if clueless people are happier, but the book discusses how being clueless (like Matthew in the first violin/second violin example) can bring you real benefits!

Michael Chwe

Hi Sandra—have I rewritten the Caltech Asian Male stereotype? I prefer to think of it as pushing nerdiness to new levels. Book nerds and math nerds unite! The next thing is to write a science-fiction Austen adaptation (I’m only slightly kidding here).

I should clarify that my kids are Hana and Hanyu (Georgia and Matthew are friends of Hanyu’s, and are now freshmen in college!).

I would say cow farts, because I don’t see too much off-gassing from lagoons and farts I’m betting are more common (and voluminious) than cow burps (based on personal experience and human-cow isomorphism).

Hogwarts Mom

Thanks this was great! Totally love it

Michael Chwe

Thanks so much Sandra and everyone for their questions!

Sandra Tsing Loh

Thank you, Michael!!! (Father of Hana and Hanyu) In any case, I think you’ve brought new style to a Caltech approach to literature! (As to cow farts you’ll have to check in tomorrow. . . ) Thanks to all! And of course. . . NERDS RULE.

SciGal4

(Whither Mr. Darcy? Never heard from again. How typical!)

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