Squid Game’s approach to Behavioural Science
Pay attention. This article contains some spoilers!
The Netflix series Squid Game is already the most-watched show in the platform, having overpast Bridgerton, the one that had the highest number of views. It created an enormous hype all over the world, since more than 87 million people have finished the series so far.
It is a long shot but, if by any chance, there is someone who hasn’t seen it yet, here is a quick storyline: 456 people with high debts and no way of paying them are invited to play in a series of games based on tradition children’s games. If they pass them all successfully, then they receive a large sum of money (more specifically, 45.6 billion Won, which is around 33.01 million euros). The twist is that, if they don’t pass all the games, they will be eliminated of the game, which basically imply that the respective participant dies.
One could also say that it is about how challenging environments lead poor people to make unstable choices, increasing inequality and the gap between the rich and the poor.
One important thing that stands out is how Behavioural Science and its concepts are widely approached in the players’ decisions throughout the nine episodes.
Behavioural Science in Squid Game
Firstly, we have rational herding. Rational herding shows the way our choices are influenced by the amount of knowledge we have of the market, or, in this case, in the other players’ decisions. This is approached right on the first episode of the series, when all players decide to vote if they continue the game or if they escape the whole game and go home. If the majority votes to go, then none of the remaining players will receive any prize money. The difference between this process and elections, is that in the series all players are aware of each other’s decisions. Although it is in their best interest to vote for the option they prefer, the large amount of available information might influence their decision, which might lead them to change one´s mind.
Here’s an addition to the rational herding concept: the last player to vote is Il-nam, player number 1, who is the oldest one. Now, if you watched the series until the end, then you know that he is the game-maker. So why did he decide to vote to end the game in this episode? Shouldn’t his goal be to make everyone stay there?
Perhaps, he knew that most of the players would re-enter the game anyway. As it is presented throughout the series, all players’ lives were even harder outside of the game. This shows that he had this rational information with him, which reflects how much he knew about his target.
Secondly, the very well-known concept loss aversion is also referenced to in Squid Game. In the 7th episode, a player proposes again to end the game. However, most players refuse to take the vote – they don’t want to leave. The danger they are in each of the games is considered worth it. They are aware of the final prize, which they might receive. Even though the money is not theirs yet, they are more afraid of losing the opportunity to win it, than to go back to their normal lives. It seems irrational, given the nature of the game.
In addition, let us introduce the overconfidence effect: people tend to think they are better at performing an action in relation to their true abilities. This often leads to careless decisions, which, in this series, may have very severe consequences. The reality is that, out of the 456 players in the beginning of the games, only 187 remain and accomplish the third episode. This might boost their confidence and the idea that they can make it until the end.
Along with this, there is the “Dunning-Kruger effect”. All the games are typical children’s games. One might think that it would be easier to overcome them and win in the end. This leads players to feel more comfortable when playing the games, since they already know the rules and are easily recognizable. This was highly reflected right in the first game, the Green Light, Red Light, where a player recklessly tries to move faster than expected (the players should only move while the song is being sung) and overcome the game producers and ends up being the first one to lose, leaving all other players terrified.
“Suited” is a behavioural concept that shows that people are more willing to trust someone with good and expensive-appearing clothing than any other. The man that is trying to recruit potential players shows himself in a suit, reflecting power and importance. This concept shows the importance of a good appearance in first impressions and, consequently, in trusting each other.
In the 4th episode, known as the episode, where alliances are ultimately formed, Deok-su, during the night, decides to stab another player. This scene leads to the concept of reciprocity, which is responding to a player’s action with an equivalent one. After that death, confusion fills the air, as players start responding with fear and aggressiveness. It is a circular process: as more people respond with confusion, more will be inflicted by it.
In episode 6, the concept of altruism is clearly showed: Ji-yeong sacrifices herself after hearing Sae-byeok's story in the marbles challenge. The two female players were playing this game against each other. Both decided that they would spend the time of the game talking, and only in the last minutes they would play it. While on it, they got to know each other’s past lives, future hopes, and ambitions. Ji-yeong ultimately made the sacrifice and lost the game on purpose, guaranteeing that Sae-byeok would have a chance to change her life and save her family.
In the last episode, we are shown that human life ends up having much higher value than any money. The main characters’ mum dies alone in her house, far away from his son, who is in the Squid Game. As he returns home with the prize money and sees her, he realises that his monetary prize means nothing without her there.
There is no doubt that Squid Game reflects much of a society’s worst fears and anxieties: desperation, no-way out and willingness to do everything if no other choice exists. Although the series takes place in a dystopic Seoul, where many people don’t live comfortably, much of the Behavioural Science concepts approached in it reflect our daily lives, where imperfection exists, and our subconscious leads the way.
Would you have entered the game?
Editor-in-Chief, Joana Alfaiate
Squid Game knocks Bridgerton off Netflix top spot, Manish Pandey, BBC.
Behavioural Psychology: Why the Hell Would You Enter the Squid Game?, Mikaela Green, Claremont.
Squid Game: How Behavioural Economics explains characters' actions in Netflix hit, Anirudh Tagat, News Nine.