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The Psychology Behind "Squid Game"

Two psychology principles are keenly illustrated on the show.

Key points

  • Netflix's "Squid Game" depicts a deadly competition in which people play children's games for a cash prize.
  • The intense pressure the competitors in "Squid Game" are under illustrates the diminishing benefits of pressure on performance.
  • In "Squid Game," the workers who enforce the rules in the game wear identical outfits, illustrating how anonymity can help reinforce group norms.
A scene from "Squid Game".
Source: Netflix

In addition to being an entertaining international mega-hit, Netflix's Squid Game is also a treasure trove of psychology and sociology concepts. Many have written about the show's underlying messages about capitalism and class struggle. In this post, I want to highlight some of the ways it also accurately captures some basic psychological principles.

This post contains mild spoilers.

Pressure improves performance, up to a point

The basic premise of the show is that several hundred people are part of a competition to win millions of dollars in which they play a series of children's games. The losers are "eliminated"—that is, killed.

The conditions are perfect for illustrating a classic law relating pressure and performance known as the Yerkes-Dodson law, named after Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, who first identified it over 100 years ago.

You've likely experienced it yourself at some point. Whenever you have a big test or game coming up, you might actually perform better during the real thing than you did during practice because the extra pressure or excitement will make you a little more focused and motivated. But if that pressure is too great, you might choke and start making mistakes you normally wouldn't make. In other words, the relationship between pressure (or "arousal") and performance is like an upside-down "U"—as pressure increases, performance goes up, but if it gets too great, performance plummets.

The conditions in the games in Squid Game are most definitely at the far right end of the curve. For example, consider the second game in the competition, in which each person much carve out a shape stamped into a piece of candy. Certainly, this is not a trivial task. But with time pressure and the threat of death for failure, this task could suddenly become nearly impossible.

Anonymity makes it easier to do horrible things

One thing that initially struck me as a little far-fetched about Squid Game is that whatever evil organization was behind the competition could really convince hundreds of people to go along with it, murdering innocent people in cold blood. But show creator Hwang Dong-hyuk (also writer and director) made the smart decision to have the workers all dress in identical outfits with masks, making them essentially anonymous and indistinguishable. This too has roots in psychology—specifically, in a theory known as social identity deindividuation.

Deindividuation is based on two ideas. First, people's identities and values are based partly on their group memberships. For example, you might think of yourself as a loyal friend but also as a Steelers fan. Second, when people feel more anonymous (i.e., less individuated), they will identify more with the groups they’re in, and the norms of the group will tend to win out over people’s personal values.

For example, in one early study to test this theory by Stephen Reicher, 70 science and 38 social science students watched a video on vivisection that suggested that scientists were generally in favor of it and social scientists were opposed. All students later rated their own attitudes toward vivisection. The students watched the video under different conditions. In one condition, scientists were seated together and social scientists were seated together, emphasizing group differences; in another condition, all the students were mixed. Additionally, in half of the conditions, students wore masks, making them completely anonymous. (Honestly, some of these old psychology experiments were just plain weird.)

When the scientists and social scientists were not wearing masks, their ratings did not differ much, regardless of whether the groups were separated, suggesting that there was little effect of group polarization on its own. But when the students did wear masks, the average ratings split, in line with the views expressed in the video. Reicher speculated that the effect of making students anonymous was to either emphasize their personal values or to reinforce the apparent norms of the group.

How does this relate to the workers in Squid Game? Even if an individual worker might have some misgivings about carrying out the brutal acts assigned to him, it would be much harder for him to override the strong norms of the group in a totally anonymized setting (not to mention the threat of being killed himself).

Squid Game’s popularity is easy to understand. It’s well-paced, suspenseful, and it shamelessly panders to the audience’s bloodlust. But it's also layered with social commentary and messages about human psychology that I think will give the series a lasting impact.