Squid Game: A Psychological Analysis

Squid Game has swept across the internet and quickly infiltrated our collective and individual consciousnesses. As the various means for social connection and interconnectivity increase in speed, I have noticed this repeated trend to jump over the initial premise, or the basic and banal elements that comprise the foundation for whatever is the cognitive infrastructure for what’s being discussed and leap toward some broader idea.

Likewise, As the show’s popularity has swelled, I have observed the increased production of articles analyzing the reasons for its popularity, exploring the societal and economic implications.

In the specific case of Squid Game, it has manifested as articles, videos, comments, and so forth about what this series showed about this or that economic system. My point here isn’t about the merit of these various connections between Squid Game and economic structures; rather, it is, firstly, to highlight a gap within the current analysis of the show, and, secondly, I hope to offer an exposition that, at the very least, takes aim at this area that has been overlooked. However, I remain stuck on a more elementary aspect of this cultural phenomenon: money—specifically, how do we relate to money? What is our relationship to money? And, crucially, why is money so important to us?

Yes, these are basic questions, almost clichés, but their connection is directly apparent as a core premise to Squid Game. One doesn’t need to research economic systems, such as, meritocracy or brush up their defenses of capitalism to address these fundamental questions;

Instead, the price is far steeper: time, attention, contemplation, and self-reflection. All aspects of our consciousness requiring more start-up energy than becoming emotionally charged with some sort of righteous indigitation for economic systems. Strangely, it’s almost as if we’d prefer to engage in these more ostensibly complex discussions rather than address these other questions—though they underlie our interest in this series. It is likely that shifting to this broader focus functions to distance ourselves emotionally through rational abstraction.

Nevertheless, I could not escape these core questions as I watched the Squid Game. Particularly, my interest in understanding the underlying psychology intensified with scenes depicting the direct connection between one player’s demise and the almost instantaneous transformation of their worth into monetary value, which the players gazed upon with lustful eyes and single-focused minds. These were the scenes that stuck for me, and I haven’t been able to square away their meaning sufficiently to dare and generalize to the societal level of either endorsements or critiques at the level of economic systems.

How could the players be so easily distracted from the death of a person by the allure of money? If you strip away the value of money to analyze these scenes objectively, then you’re left with those alive, those who are dead, and clusters of paper amassing with each additional player’s demise. Put in this crude way, it would seem that the question then becomes why is paper so important to us?

Of course, money isn’t about the actual paper—as fiat currencies have taught us. The form money takes, whether that be paper, metal, digital, and so on (NFTs?), is not what matters. This is both true in reality and for the players in the game.

Changing the form of currency wouldn’t have reduced the players’ indiference toward the death of one of their competitors, so long as a simple condition of monetary value is met: Can that something be exchanged with others for that which perceived of value?

In my opinion, these specific scenes require deeper analysis on the individual level and are fundamentally transformed when generalized to the level of society, shifting from the drives, wants, and desires of the player’s to the policy and politics of a society. By making this transformation to the collective level, an abundance of new variables emerges that aren’t necessarily present in the analysis of the individual. For example, if the form of currency doesn’t matter, then what makes it so captivating? It must be what it represents.

In psychological terms, money is a secondary reinforcer. Contrary to primary reinforcers, like food, drugs, sex, etc., a secondary reinforcer doesn’t have inherent pleasure embedded within it. This isn’t to say that watching your cryptocurrency stocks surge in value doesn’t spike your levels of pleasureful chemicals—it likely does by significant margins, especially when present in a competitive gamified context. However, the reward produced in this example requires some general agreement from others about the specific token’s shared value. Conversely, when you indulge in your favorite dessert, or something of this kind, your physiological reward isn’t contingent upon other’s valuation of this dessert; rather, there is an intrinsic reward value to this latter experience.

Returning to Squid Game scenes, where players stare in awe of the growing amount of prize money at the expense of other players’ lives, it must be presumed their responses are not about the actual, material prize.

As the series progresses, the audience gains further insight into the characters’ backstories. This additional context illustrates how the players’ desire toward the prize money is connected to something intangible, imaginative, and futuristic. The amassing of material paper doesn’t transfix the players; their imaginations’ are activated by the expanding possibilities that of what the prize increase represents to them, personally. The players even discuss what their plans are if they were to win the prize money. In most cases, the player’s future aspirations could be accomplished with substantially less than the total prize amount, yet they all know the game is an all-or-nothing one.

This brings me to my main point: At what cost are we willing to reduce and/or resign from our humanity? The show presents the audience with a context that allows us to witness the most brutal of choicest that a human being can be faced with. Our collective interest in the series is an effect of our identification with the characters, We utilize our imagination’s to perspective take into the fantastical, but disturbing close to being real, situations and, secretly, wonder what we would do for money—what would be our limits? We console ourselves with the fact that, especially in the case of Squid Game, it is doubtful that we will ever find ourselves in such circumstances. Nevertheless, we cannot help but entertain the possibilities dormant within our capacity for self-preservation. It is dangerous to become transfixed upon this; it is worse to be willfully ignorant of fact that this possibility exists. this capacity’s existence.

Unprecedented

While the markets closed with another one-day record high, it is important to think about the last few weeks, as well as place it in a historical context.

Within the last two weeks, we have witnessed multiple one-day record highs and lows. Simply looking at this past week, Monday started with a record one-day low, the worst drop since the crash of 1987, and then the markets set another record one-day high the Friday of this same week (Friday 13th, 2020). The week before last there had been days with record lows followed by record highs the very next day. This is market volatility on a different level.

For example, during the historic drop on Monday, the markets tripped the “circuit breaker,” a mechanism that automatically halts trading for a period of time when markets drop too sharply. This was the first time this mechanism was tripped since 1997; moreover, the circuit breaker was tripped two more times within this last week, due largely to the coronavirus fears.

It is well-established that the markets do not like uncertainty, however, that is exactly the situation that coronavirus is causing. During the 2008 financial crisis, the main issue was the popping of the housing market bubble that led the U.S. Federal Reserve to slash interest rates to zero and the government to approve the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act—a $700 billion bailout to buy mortgage-backed securities. Moreover, while the exact cause of the 1987 crash is subject to some debate, it involved investors’ growing concerns of an impending bear-market, the novelty of beginning to use computer systems on Wall Street, and issues surrounding the role the Chairman of Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, had in the matter. While both these cases resulted in significant economic effects and the loss of jobs for many, the current situation is quite different.

In general, people use the past as a model to predict the future and help inform decision-making. There is a slew of cognitive biases that effect this process; however, when it comes to Wall Street and the stock markets, it seems that there are some foundational assumptions that blind people from the notion that the future is novel. For example, The Black Swan Theory highlights the fact that people tend to have biases that blind them to the potential for rare and unexpected future events that may have significant effects. Nowhere is this more true than the stock market, which is literally based on decision theory—a fixed model of outcomes that ignores and/or minimizes the impact of events that are considered “outliers” or outcomes outside of the basic model.

Unfortunately, this is not how life unfolds, as we can look back on historic events that were quite rare, though having a significant impact. This is the reason for the recent headlines of articles featuring economists stating that “This time is different.” One notable economist sounding the alarm on this issue is Economist David Rosenberg. He was serving as the chief economist for Merrill Lynch during the 2008 financial crisis. However, in a recent article, he clearly delineates the 2008 crisis from the economic crisis currently happening when he states:

“In the financial crisis, air travel didn’t come to a halt, borders weren’t being closed, we weren’t talking about quarantines and self-isolation. In the financial crisis, people weren’t scared to leave their homes. We’re talking about palpable fear and when people get fearful, they withdraw from economic activity…. The reality is the financial crisis did not come with a mortality rate.”

The effects of the coronavirus have already led to unprecedented cancellations of events, activities, etc. These effects have already prompted The Federal Reserve to take action. Most recently, this action was in the form of $1.5 trillion in short-term loans to banks in order to “address [the] highly unusual disruptions in Treasury financing markets associated with the coronavirus outbreak,” The Federal Reserve remarked Thursday, March 12th. The response by the Federal Reserve is detailed and not limited to simply this one action. This plan will be implemented over the course of weeks, in addition to the possibility of cutting interest rates more (a move they already did a few weeks ago).

However, despite these moves by The Federal Reserve attempting to prevent an economic collapse, some like Christopher Whalen, investment banker and founder of Whalen Global Advisors, do not think The Federal Reserve will be able to stop what is coming. Whalen highlights the fact that the financial system was not healthy to begin with and states that “The virus was the catalyst but it’s not the cause. Both bonds and equities were inflated rather dramatically by our friends at the Fed. You’re seeing the end game for monetary policy here, which is at a certain point you have to stop. Otherwise you get grotesque asset bubbles like we saw, and the engine just runs out of fuel.” Whalen is pointing to a sickness in the symptoms that predated this coronavirus outbreak. Moreover, David Rosenberg wrote in detail about some of these issues in a Financial Post article dated February 7th, 2020. In this article, Rosenberg writes “Fed policy, the trajectory of GDP growth and global economic fundamentals in general all tell a cautionary tale. Both bonds and stocks can’t be right at this moment in time…the equity market no longer seems to trade off the economic fundamentals. Never before has there been such a loose relationship to economic growth.” He wrote this article before the coronavirus started having its significant effects; additionally, he never mentions the virus in the article. What Rosenberg was critiquing was the framework of the current economic system and the dysfunctions that existed, such as discrepancies between market values and asset values.

Taken in sum, these points that I have laid out indicate that the economic effects stemming from this virus were not limited to the coronavirus alone. Instead, the virus served as the catalyst that is now testing the economic foundation of the system itself. After all, this event is one that impacts all aspects of the economy, since it impacts daily life and social activities. This event has released a cascade of events that cannot be walked back; moreover, the temporal extent and the economic/societal impact of this outbreak are entirely uncertain. The only certainty is that the coupling of a pandemic—that has not reached its peak yet—with an economy that has been built using the most advanced technologies in human history and relies on mass, sustained and fast-paced consumerism, will produce an outcome that is entirely novel from the status quo we are accustomed to.

References

https://business.financialpost.com/news/economy/recession-feature

https://www.vox.com/2020/3/12/21176567/us-stock-markets-shut-down-trading-coronavirus-massive-sell-off-circuit-breaker

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fed-to-inject-1-5-trillion-in-bid-to-prevent-unusual-disruptions-in-markets-11584033537

https://business.financialpost.com/investing/investing-pro/david-rosenberg-this-turbocharged-debt-cycle-will-end-miserably-its-just-a-matter-of-when