Jane Austen, Game Theorist

The popular reception to political scientist Michael Chwe’s book Jane Austen, Game Theorist has been striking.  Here is the New York Times story and Chelsea Clinton’s gushy tweet.  A video Michael made about the book is here. 

Michael wrote to me with his own reaction to the book’s reception.

What surprises me most about the public reception of “Jane Austen, Game Theorist” is how many people know and like game theory.  I knew that Austen had many fans, but I didn’t know that game theory did also.  Is it just good marketing?  Ariel Rubinstein writes, “Whoever invented the name ‘game theory’ was also a genius in public relations.  Who would be interested in this theory if it were called ‘A Collection of Models of Rational Decision-Making in Interactive Situations’? ”  Steffen Huck, who has a paper with Ilias Chrissochoidis in the Cambridge Opera Journal about Wagner’s Lohengrin, has told me that when he talks to humanists, they are strongly turned off by the term “rational choice theory” but like the term “game theory,” so maybe Rubinstein has a point.  Everyone likes “games.”

Still, I wonder how game theory has reached the popular imagination, and unless you count the “A Beautiful Mind” book and movie (which undoubtedly did help), I am left with the explanation that undergraduate teaching is actually quite powerful.  At UCLA, just in the political science department, Kathy Bawn, Barry O’Neill, and I teach game theory to 500 students a year.  If you count all the people teaching game theory throughout the world, I suppose it adds up after a while.  When Chelsea Clinton tweeted last week that Austen and game theory were two of her favorite topics, I was so glad that the person who taught her game theory (who is most likely reading this blog!) did such a great job.  The essence of teaching is to like a subject so much that other people start liking it too.

After the New York Times article about my book came out, Ali Valenzuela, assistant professor of politics at Princeton, tweeted that as a UCLA undergraduate, he had been introduced to game theory by my course.  The fact that he feels sufficiently untraumatized by his experience to tweet about it pleases me to no end.

I haven’t yet read this book, but I am glad that it’s gotten this much attention already.  Political science could benefit from the occasional crossover project like this.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.