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.

Unified Rationality

In today’s socio-political climate, our attitude toward each other is often characterized as polarized, hostile, intolerant, divided, and so forth. The current situation’s emotional charge intensifies as the confluence of significant factors (e.g., pandemic, natural disasters, scarcity of resources including economically) both increase in magnitude and expand in scope. Consequently, the continuation of these tests continues to test the integrity of the system, as a society and as individuals.

As those experiencing these events transpire in the present, at the most technologically advanced point in history, there is a natural human tendency to amplify the significance of what is happening in the present and characterize these events as unprecedented. While these events may be unprecedented in many ways, particularly in their magnitude and scope, the psychological forces at play are anything but unprecedented. In fact, it is only due to our assumption of superiority over all previous stages of civilization that allow us to maintain a position of confidence when discussing these psychological matters, citing the advances in neuroscience among other disciplines of the mind to console ourselves that the deepest and most terrifying stages of psychic development are behind us, as a collective.

To expand on this point, I will return to Carl Jung’s 1957 book The Undiscovered Self for a humbling and frightful quote: “Consciousness is a very recent acquisition and as such is still an ‘experimental state’ ––frail, menaced by specific dangers, and easily injured” (p. 74). By returning to the level of consciousness, we shift to a universal plane of thought that is shared by all and even extends historically, stretching back to the origins of consciousness itself. Even through doing this as a cognitive exercise, there already is a greater degree of separation from the present day. Moreover, Jung reminds us that despite our technological advancements, that our consciousness is not to be taken for granted, explaining, “The development of consciousness is a slow and laborious process that took untold ages to reach the civilized state. . .Although the development since that date seems to be considerable, it is still far from complete” (p. 73).

If these quotes about consciousness seem too abstract and unrelated to the initial points of the first paragraph, then it might be useful to pivot toward addressing why this disconnect directly: Why does thinking of the term consciousness provoke a sense of resistance? Maybe it’s that discussion or thought of the matter seems arbitrary and futile, or possibly it is easier and simpler to dismiss the topic altogether, selecting from the various connotations linked to consciousness as a way of sidestepping further investigation into the matter.

There is another reason for the resistance or uneasiness to the idea of consciousness that also accounts for why mental health and psychology have lagged behind that of the physical sciences, as Jung puts it, “When it comes to psychology, one of the youngest of the sciences, you can see misoneism at work” (p.72). Misoneism is defined as “the hatred or dislike of what is new or represents change.” As Jung identifies its role in psychology, I am extending it to our general uneasiness toward the topic of consciousness and our specific aversion toward the talk of unconsciousness.

While our society may be characterized by stark divisions and widening schisms of perceived and real differences, we share many similarities with how we respond to the notion and the reality of the unconscious. While the mere mention of the unconscious may provoke an urge to double down on the supremacy of rationality, declaring “our present knowledge of nature to be the summit of all possible knowledge,” we, nevertheless, can be “possessed and altered by our moods, we can suddenly be unreasonable, or important facts unaccountably vanish from our memory” (p. 74). Furthermore, this “basic resistance of the conscious mind to anything unconscious and unknown” serves to further our state of division from one another and dissociation from ourselves (p. 72).   

Resistance toward change is at the core of both of these rifts, within and without. They fuel one another as we seek to compensate for our feelings of inferiority evoked by the mere acknowledgment of unconsciousness. Through rational compensation and continued one-sided emphasis of consciousness, we, at the forefront of humanity, revert back to primal methods of denial and suppression, just as our ancestors did when faced with unprecedented events. The primary difference between our moment in time and that of our ancestors is the artificial integration that the internet and, specifically, social media platforms have provided us with that allow us to pull at the seams of not only our individual psyche (the container of consciousness and unconsciousness) but also that of the collective psyche. Our fears are absolved as we allow ourselves to be dissolved into a group that grants us an escape; this temporary refuge can blur over time and transform into a constant on which we depend and from where we operate, creating such a degree of normalcy and familiarity that we invert even the most basic principles to the point that “the right hand does not know what the left is doing, and in a state of violent affect one frequently forgets who one is” (p. 74).

While people are finding ways to accept the severe divisions among political parties, ideologies, and directions for the future of these United States, it is of the utmost importance for humanity that we do not forget that “Even in our days the unity of consciousness is a doubtful affair, since only a little affect is needed to disrupt its continuity” (p. 75).  

References:

Jung, C. G., Hull, R. F. C., & Shamdasani, S. (2010). The Undiscovered Self: With Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams (Bollingen) (Revised ed.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1957)

The Fundamental Divide

Many living in this modern age will agree with the statement that “we have never been more divided.” If not to this extreme, then at least to the degree of acknowledgment of the strong division among the citizens of society.

While I am specifically referring to the discord within the United States, the principles and mechanisms of actions underlying this division are far more universal than any single country or period within human history.

Often when thinking about divisions within society or among peoples, there is a basic mistake made in the first movement of thought; that is, the natural tendency appears to look outward and continue the investigation from this starting point. However, while this can yield useful and insightful discoveries, it also serves to overlook another source of division because of this initial outward movement: We neglect to inquire into internal divisions.

The consequences of this inward inquiry are different from that of the outward one; however, there are many similarities between the internal and the external. Both are necessary for deepening understanding of each other.

Throughout the work of Carl Jung, there is an emphasis on the inner and outer, moreover, the interplay between these two. There is a tremendous amount to expand on from this point, so instead, I would like to redirect to the initial divide that he so often wrote about: the division of the physical and the mental (i.e., psychic).

While Jung is by no means the originator of this idea, his psychological approach to this mind-body division was novel for the time since this question had previously been delegated to the realm of philosophers. Moreover, Jung was one of the forerunners for the relatively young field of psychology, beginning as a discipline around the late 1900s. Still, more than a century after Jung’s first publication in 1912, it is only in recent years (especially the last two decades) that the field of psychology, mental health, and the psychic side of life are beginning to gain traction. At least, relative to being treated on equal terms with the physical side of life.

As a society, there is a growing movement to remedy injustices and advocate for equality. Yet, even with the increased acknowledgment and receptivity to the reality of mental illnesses and the necessity for psychiatric and other related interventions, the inner world or the psychic side of existence still must overcome a more considerable burden of proof than the physical side.

Jung emphasizes this disparity in our treatment of the physical and the psychic in his 1957 book The Undiscovered Self, writing, “One can regard one’s stomach or heart as unimportant and worthy of contempt, but that does not prevent overeating or overexertion from having consequences that affect the whole man. Yet we think that psychic mistakes and their consequences can be got rid of with mere words, for ‘psychic’ means less than air to most people” (p.47).

Even today, the term “psychic” is likely to be less well-received than “mental” or “psychological.” However, the correspondence between the terms physical and psychic is the most logical pairing and usage for the natures being described. This may seem like an arbitrary point, but I believe that solidifying psychological terminology is essential to increase understanding and awareness of the nature, components, and disorders that occupy this psychic landscape.

Moreover, Jung’s quote can be applied to the original point of societal divisions, for he is indeed addressing a very similar topic. This is evident in his subsequent writing, “when everyone admits that the weal or woe of the future will be decided neither by threat of wild animals, nor by natural catastrophes, nor by the danger of world-wide epidemics, but simply and solely by the psychic changes in man. It needs only an almost imperceptible disturbance of equilibrium in a few of our rulers’ heads to plunge the world into blood, fire, and radioactivity” (p.47).

While on the surface, these outer divisions appear distinctly separate from that of those inner divides, Jung’s work highlights how our inner and outer worlds are deeply interconnected. Furthermore, he emphasizes how the outer worldly situations are collective externalizations of suppressed content from our inner worlds. For example, the increasing focus on materialism and objectification has parallels to how the physical side of life, and, particularly the rational and scientific side more recently, represent a one-sidedness that obscures and diminishes the significance of the inner, psychic side of life; both on the individual and collective levels.  

As psychology and the mental world gain more acknowledgment and receptivity than in previous points in time, and there is increasing focus on the outer world, Jung’s work invites us to explore the inner world as a method for understanding and addressing the variety of manifestations that arise within the outer.

Reference:

Jung, C. G., Hull, R. F. C., & Shamdasani, S. (2010;1957). The Undiscovered Self: With Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams (Bollingen) (Revised ed.). Princeton University Press.