Bryan Caplan  

See Saw

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The excellent Saw comes out on DVD this Tuesday. If you've got a cast-iron stomach, there is no better fictional exploration of the Prisoners' Dilemma available. (If you don't have a cast-iron stomach, may I suggest Pooh's Heffalump Movie?)

The premise of Saw is straight out of intro micro: two men wake up chained in a room together, and soon learn that at most one gets out alive. And the execution is straight out of experimental economics: The characters' first instinct is not to try to kill each other, but to cooperate.

But before long, we bump into a hard truth: Human beings are better than economic theory tells us, but also worse. Unselfish people might sacrifice their own interests to help others, but they also might sacrifice their own interests to hurt others. The characters in Saw start to accumulate grievance after grievance against each other, until the audience starts to wonder: Maybe these guys would kill each other even if they didn't have to!

A lot of critics accused star Cary Elwes of "over-acting," but I want to give him for the Oscar for Best Actor. Seriously. Elwes gives a restrained performance that credibly ramps up as the story unfolds. My jaw dropped at the end not because I couldn't believe his character's decision, but because I did.

Half the joy of Saw is wondering what's going to happen next. But let me give you an Easter egg too cryptic to be called a spoiler: Apparently our serial killer is fairly familiar with the social science literature on life satisfaction!


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The author at The Glittering Eye in a related article titled Catching my eye: morning A through Z writes:
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The author at The Club for Growth Blog in a related article titled The Economics of 'Saw' writes:
    You may have seen the thriller movie, Saw, when it was showing in theaters late last year. If you didn’t, then go get the DVD which was just released. Not only is it a great flick, but you can learn... [Tracked on February 13, 2005 1:59 PM]
COMMENTS (2 to date)
Bill Stepp writes:

Sacrificing one's own interest sounds like a contradiction. Every action is self-interested by the definition of action. This is why there's no such thing as altruism.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

What is the economic significance of about five Prison movies being made a year? The Prisoners' Dilemma is best illustrated by the 1930s version of 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. lgl

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