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What "Squid Game" Reveals About Human Psychology

The escalation of evil, step by step.

Key points

  • The ‘Squid Game’ series is a biting commentary and allegory of how the wealthy and powerful may exploit those of lower socioeconomic status.
  • In the foot-in-the-door phenomenon, a person who agrees to one small request is more likely to go along with a subsequent, larger request.
  • In the series, the gamemasters never give the players direct instructions to kill anyone but they escalate the implied request along the way.
 Scudsvlad, 동운맘, cropped/Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Dalgona candy.
Source: Scudsvlad, 동운맘, cropped/Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

The South Korean survival drama Squid Game, airing on Netflix, has proven to be one of the most-viewed programs ever shown by any streaming service. Inspired by its creator's own financial straits from younger days, the story centers on a deadly series of games played by desperate, financially-compromised people who see no other hope for fixing the messes of their lives. The show is also a biting commentary and allegory of how the wealthy and powerful may exploit those of lower socioeconomic status for their own amusement, not unlike royalty of old pitting starving individuals against each other in fights to the death over scraps of food.

Characters in Squid Game play a set of six children's games, each of which holds deadly consequences for its losers. In the first two, characters are not directly competing against each other. None have to hurt anyone else at this point. A few quickly form strategies that take advantage of others in order to protect themselves, such as those who hide behind other players to keep from getting shot during a game of Red Light, Green Light—but only a few. In the second game, Ppopgi, players must neatly cut a stamped shape out of a dalgona candy. A couple of characters who learn which game they're going to play select simpler shapes but do not choose to share that advantage with other players, a passive-aggressive act that does not directly harm anyone but deliberately fails to help others avoid getting shot if they make errors. Thus does at least one character, an investor on the verge of arrest for defrauding clients, take his first step toward committing more direct violence.

In the foot-in-the-door phenomenon (Cialdini et al., 1975; Freedman & Fraser, 1966), a person who agrees to one small request becomes more likely to go along with a subsequent, larger request from the same person, even though they would otherwise have refused that larger request. Though the gamemasters never give the players direct instructions to kill anyone, they escalate the implied request along the way and heighten aggression through manipulations such as providing too little food one evening, culminating with the action of leaving the final players steak knives that they may use to kill each other before or during the last game, the squid game for which the series is named.

Only in the third of the six games, tug-of-war, do players physically take the action that causes other players’ death, when each winning team causes the other to fall to their deaths by pulling them over the line. Even then, diffusion of responsibility (Latané & Darley, 1968) may reduce individuals’ feelings that they personally killed anyone else.

From tug-of-war onward, most of the games become competitive zero-sum games, in which one person’s win means someone else’s loss. In this story, one’s survival means another’s demise. The fourth, marbles, forces characters into situations that continue to escalate the personal repercussions. During the first game, most had known none of the other players, so the others’ deaths mattered little. By tug-of-war, they knew enough about their opponents to know their teammates and to know something about many of the opponents they might kill. When they pair up to play the fourth, they think they are selecting partners until they learn they will play marbles, which means that any player’s win means those running the games will shoot the person that player had selected as an ally and partner. Some intentionally lose this time, sacrificing themselves, while the majority play to save their own lives. Despite strong external circumstances that may help rationalize their choices, the personalization of this loss creates cognitive dissonance (stress over their own inconsistency) in some. Guilt over that drives one to suicide.

Personalization may intensify preexisting feelings of antagonism, such as bitterness between a gangster and a pickpocket, but also may turn familiarity into hatred. The story’s protagonist, Gi-hun, goes from feeling friendly toward Sang-woo, the investor with whom he had played games as a child, to greater outrage toward this man who turns to murder. Psychologically speaking, Sang-woo has committed the sin of violating Gi-hun's expectations of him, which jury research shows can result in harsher punishments. Nevertheless, Gi-hun cannot bring himself to kill the man during the final game, not even indirectly. Rather than finish the game, he offers this man he has known since childhood an opportunity to survive even though it might mean both could walk away with no prize money. Rather than return to the world and face arrest for securities fraud, Sang-woo kills himself with his knife.

Money does not buy Gi-hun's happiness. He returns home in the exhaustion stage of stress reactions (Selye, 1978), only to get more bad news. Gi-hun descends into deep and prolonged depression. Now loaded with about $38 million in prize money that he prefers not to spend, he does not even return to the compulsive gambling, the behavior that he'd gotten into because the lure of a big win had given him hope. Only when reminders that those who ran the games are still exploiting others activate his fury and indignation does he find new purpose. Apparently he seeks to make meaning of his experience by finding a way to stop the games and the people in charge.

References

Cialdini, R. B., Vincent, J. E., Lewis, S. K., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Danby, B. L. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 31(2), 206-215.

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 4(2), 195-202.

Latané, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 10(3), 215-221.

Selye, H. (1978). The stress of life (rev. ed.). McGraw-Hill.

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