Note: This article contains spoilers for the show Squid Games on Netflix.
The show Squid Games, created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, highlights many psychological concepts surrounding mental health. There are many themes that center around group influence, morality, and addiction. The storyline follows Seong Gi-hun and 455 other players of the game who have no choice but to go through traumatic situations in order to win the prize money. This article will break down the key aspects of mental health depicted in the show.
The beginning of the show starts off with us learning the backstory of Gi-hun. He is portrayed to have a gambling addiction and doesn’t try to pursue an honest career, even when the situation demands his all such as being there for his daughter on her birthday. He even resorts to stealing from his mother’s bank account without remorse, leading to his mother cutting ties with him. His personality symbolizes the “perfect” candidate for a player where no matter the risk, they will try to get money the fastest and easiest way they can. This makes sense because research shows that those with gambling tendencies are more likely to be impulsive and take risks (Mishra et al., 2017). The workers of the game use this to their advantage by utilizing behavioral psychology to lure others into playing the game. The first instance of this was when Gi-hun was offered to play ddakji with the suited man. The man uses the ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique where he asks for something small at first - slapping Gi-hun in the face if he loses. If he agrees, that means he’s more likely to agree to the next and bigger request (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). This is a way to gauge how far he would go to win easy cash.
Gi-hun’s story is one instance of how addiction can lead to unhealthy situations and declining mental health. How someone grows up has a direct correlation with how they live their lives as adults, so those with fewer opportunities are more likely to engage in illegal activities. This can lead to substance abuse, homelessness, imprisonment, and mental health issues. With substance abuse, other mental health disorders can develop, causing comorbidity. It seems almost every player had a story of their own where they had to struggle to make money, pushing them to enter the game.
Once in the game, manipulation strategies are continually enforced by the workers. Anyone who disagreed with the rules or game would get their private information broadcasted in order to publicly humiliate them. This helps deter anyone else from speaking out. Additionally, the design of the game supports the Dunning-Kruger effect which represents a cognitive bias where people with limited competence in a certain area greatly overestimate their own knowledge relative to others (Dunning & Kruger, 1999). Because only easy childhood games were played, those familiar with the games were overconfident that they would win.
Other strategies were utilized to influence crowd behavior. After the first round, when the players wanted to leave, they were reminded of the fact that they had a choice to end the game. Before they make their choice, however, the workers show the money falling into the piggy bank hanging on the ceiling, signaling the worth of each player in currency. They were also reminded that if they didn’t play the game, the prize money would go to all of the family members of the deceased. This was a way to influence the players before they made their decision. After Player 001 makes the choice to terminate the game, aligning with the ethics of Gi-hun, the players are primed, or influenced, into seeing how unfair the outside world is and that there is no choice but to play the game - that there’s nothing to lose. Sang-woo even attempts to commit suicide, symbolizing him throwing his life away. This speaks to the fact that the players were tricked into thinking they were signing consent forms and voting when in reality, they had no power over their choices.
Gaslighting is a powerful tactic used primarily by domestic abusers. Other methods they use that can also be seen in the show are isolation, blaming, manipulation of social systems, emotional manipulation, threats, and financial abuse. These strategies instilled fear in the players similar to how fear is instilled in domestic abuse victims. They may worry for their life and do anything in order to survive. This suggests that violence is not always physical - abusers often use psychological methods to exert control over their targets.
Mob mentality, or crowd behavior, is when individuals are influenced by a larger group also known as conforming. In studies done by Solomon Asch, conformity was measured when participants in a group were asked to determine which two out of four lines were the same length. Only one person in the group would be the subject while everyone else was staged actors who would purposely point out the wrong lines. When the participants heard the incorrect answer, some started to believe the incorrect answer was actually correct. The participants conformed mainly because they wanted to fit in with the rest of the group and thought the rest of the group was more informed than they were, even when the lengths were obviously not the same. Applying this to the show, the players engaged in mob mentality during the riots at night because one group influenced the whole - they made the informed decision that the others conformed to.
Another way the workers coerced mob mentality is by how food was distributed and what happened if people took more servings of food. The players were purposely given very little food in order to fuel hunger and rage. This can cause any group to become violent, making the situation dangerous. However, with organized leadership, a crowd’s beliefs can be informed and directed in an appropriate way. This can be seen when the riot is stopped by Player 001 yelling that they will all kill each other if they don’t stop.
Throughout the show, moral choices were constantly tested in the interactions between the players. Sang-woo was a big representation of someone who lacked ethics and had a harsh determination to win the game no matter what. He stopped at nothing to win and even ended up betraying his friends. The marble game was a critical part of the show because it tested each player’s morality. Sang-woo betrayed Ali while Gi-hun lies in order to win the game. Later, he even gets tempted to kill Sang-woo, but Sae-byeok stops him, reminding him that he isn’t that kind of person. In the end, he becomes the winner of the game by sticking to his moral code and trying to save his friend. He even goes to re-enter the game, making us question what his next move might be. However, if morality was really the reason why he won, then Sae-byeok or Ali could have easily been the winners of the game. They were the only ones who didn’t cheat and entered the game to save their families. This show does a great job depicting the moral and psychological unraveling that happens when we stop seeing people as human beings. It also shows how ruthless self-centered choices can be to both ourselves and others.