This episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast seemed worth sharing for a couple of reasons. The first is Jane Austen, who is just obvious clickbait all by herself, and who political scientist Michael Chwe is studying through the lens of game theory. Austen, he argues, with her precise studies of how women navigate complex social networks and work them to their advantage. Furthermore, given the author’s engagement with eighteenth century intellectual culture, including Adam Smith, looking at Austen as a kind of proto-economist interested in very specific kinds of markets is provocative and somehow not completely anachronistic.
But it’s an even more interesting idea because of the way, midway through, Stephen Dubner probes the relationship between gender and the kind of strategic thinking that game theory entails. Women, argues Chwe, tend to be better at strategic maneuvering than men in the way that all disempowered groups tend to be relative to the majority. If the status quo is working in your favor, then there is no need to manipulate in order to get some kind of advantage. But in making that connection, the episode also puts a new spin on two types of behavior that are stereotypically and stigmatically coded as female: empathy and manipulation.
Game theory requires one to be able to intuit the response of another person to one’s actions. In other words, it requires a deep knowledge of people as people and as individuals, the kind of sensitivity to the nuances of human behavior and relationships that we so often think of as feminine. Likewise, the successful player must be able to use that knowledge in some kind of strategic way in order to get what they want. Therefore what’s often labeled as passive aggression or manipulation are re-contextualized as rational, adaptive behaviors that have to be honed and deployed in intelligent ways in order to yield positive results. The economist argues that we see this kind of adaptation permeating the largely homosocial, female-centered culture of Austen’s novels, where the exchange of information (which we usually call gossip) is part of women’s “shared strategic culture,” honed and perfected over time.