“Live or Die, Make Your Choice”


“Live or die; make your choice” is an infamous phrase from the Saw movies. If you have never heard of the Saw movies, I’ll give you some quick background information. A man whom the media calls “Jigsaw” carefully abducts citizens and eventually wake up in intricate and personalized…situations. Each of these “situations” involve some level of sacrifice, most of them physical. Jigsaw tells each person exactly how to get out of the situation, and if he/she does not follow directions, they will ultimately die.

I am going to focus on one particular Saw trap for this blog post. This trap involved three people, one female and two males, all separately bound in a triangle formation, separated by a giant circular saw. Here is a picture I handcrafted just for you guys (this way no one gets squeamish). The X is the saw, the frownies are the people, and the woman is the top frownie.



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The basic idea is that the two men at the bottom have to push the saw towards the other man, or if they do nothing, the saw will rise upwards and kill the woman, who cannot push the saw in any direction. If no decision has been made in 60 seconds, the woman will automatically die. They have to decide to either let themselves die, or kill another human being. How would you make this decision? Would you rationalize through it and see which among you would have the least to sacrifice? Or would you simply be the noble one and accept death? Go ahead, think, I’ll wait here…

You make a decision? Well, I didn’t give you all the details of the situation…

Here’s the catch: these are not three strangers. The woman has been lying to both of these men, and has been cheating on one man with the other, and this is how they find out. Has your hypothetical decision changed?

At first the two enraged men try to battle it out between the two of them and kill the other man, but as soon as the woman roots for one man to kill the other, the situation changes. The men no longer see each other as being enemies, but as being victims of a common enemy.

If you chose to rationalize through the situation, and see who had the least to lose, you would be applying utility theory. You would outweigh the costs and benefits of each person’s death, and make a decision that would minimize costs. However, we are not sitting down and trying to decide what car to buy. This kind of decision making technique seems foreign and cold when you apply it to such a dramatic situation.

The fact is that there is an emotional component to it. If you chose to sacrifice yourself, maybe you chose so because of the threat of the feeling of regret you would feel for letting someone else die. This is a huge factor in decision making. Most of us want to avoid regret at all costs; just the anticipation of regret can make us feel guilty and sways our decision.

However, regret isn’t the only emotion at play. This article by Kligyte, Connelly, Thiel, and Davenport focuses a lot on fear and anger in ethical decision making. They report that when people feel threatened and are angry, they will likely result in non-ethical behavior and act in retaliation. This is because emotions affect the way we process information and can result in limited options and self-focused interpretations of situations. The article continues to say that feeling angry may end in a person not being able to see all the details of the surrounding situation and can even increase risk-seeking behavior. Furthermore, the article states that an angry individual may not fully anticipate all of the consequences of the decision they make while they are angry.

Of course, anger is not the only emotion here. Let’s not forget about fear. Although Kligyte, Connelly, Thiel, and Davenport say that fear is not associated with as many negative influences as anger, they do highlight the fact that fear creates more physiological responses; especially flight. However, since the men did not even attempt to flee, I would say that their anger outweighed their fear and was the ultimate factor in their decision.

In this movie, the men ultimately stopped pushing the saw and allowed it to rise and kill the woman. Although they were not happy about making the decision, they still agreed that she was the one who deserved it. Can we distinguish between utility theory applications and emotional based decision making here? Perhaps this was the most logical and reasonable conclusion. Or maybe they really acted out of anger and retaliated unjustly. One thing that does point in favor of the men acting emotionally is that the men never tried any other option to escape with all three lives. They were in a glass box, in broad daylight, and people were calling the police. Help was on the way. Yet they never tried to prolong the decision or tried to act in a way that was a little bit different.

I would also like to add that this situation is so extreme that it is hard to judge the validity of the actions of the characters. Personally, I would think that fear would play a much larger role and stunt a lot of the rationalizing the men did. If all three of the characters would experience fear like I think it would, I believe they would be trying to find a way out. I think that the flight response would play a much larger role. Granted, it is Hollywood’s version, but for the most part I think the scenario played out fairly realistically.

PS If you haven’t seen any Saw movies and want to PLEASE start with the first one, it’s awesome. If you have any problems with blood and gore, do not see these movies.


3 thoughts on ““Live or Die, Make Your Choice”

  1. mluning

    This was a really interesting post! I used to be really into the SAW movies. It always bugged me though that the plot twists were based on information that you as the viewer could never know. There usually aren’t even tell-tale signs that let you know the personal relationships between each person being “tested.” I think these movies sort of exemplify a sort of problem solving that’s similar to the nine-dot problem a lot of the time. The answer doesn’t seem like it’s actually allowed so naturally it’s overlooked. Instead, the results of pretty much every scenario is someone being brutally harmed rather than taking the time [if possible] to solve the issue and escape relatively unscathed, like you said above. The people might have been able to make it out because help was most definitely on the way, all the needed to do was hold out a little longer. I guess the first movies are a little different though int he fact that the situations are supposed to be inescapable without harm coming to one or all of the people involved. Great post!

  2. valvarez

    I really like how you integrated the topic to such a popular movie give the fact the Saw movies are just filled with decision making processes. I remember watching them for the first time and couldn’t bare the thought of being in those citizens position. Those movies do make you think though however, god forbid anyone end up in their position but are people really capable of making rational and reasonable decision given high stake situations? I think that is part of the fun of shows like fear factor and other goal/ challenged based television. It would be interesting to see other emotional interactions and decision making processes. I totally agree with what the your study found about angry and ethical decision making, emotions definitely cloud your judgement and unfortunately for the worst. Good job, I really liked your post.

  3. mdeasis

    I loved this article! I am a huge fan of the Saw movies and I thought you did an incredible job tying it into what we’ve learned about decision making in class. It was a fun read but at the same time was really credible due to you tying it in to what we’ve learned and also bringing in other outside articles.

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