Zimbardo and Milgram’s tentacles reach out

Priya Ahmed watches the Netflix sensation, 'Squid Game'.

Viewers around the globe have been enthralled by this dystopian South Korean thriller, the premise of which reflects modern-day capitalism using innocent ‘child playground games’ as part of a sadistic experiment. I couldn’t shake off the parallels to classical social psychology theories, in particular Zimbardo’s prison study.

In both Zimbardo’s experiment and the Squid Game, volunteers are recruited and given a social role. Half were prison wardens (masked guards or monitors in the game) and the other half were prisoners (referred to as players in the game), both known by the numbers assigned to them to further deprive them of their identity. The most striking resemblance was the ‘prison like’ set up to distort reality for the trapped prisoners/players, with guards hiding behind their black masks. This is when the real ‘experiment’ begins… ‘what happens when you put good people in an evil place?’

In the game, the odds are against the players. There can only be one winner, but this comes at the cost of making the other players suffer, which mirrors Milgram’s famous obedience experiment. The protagonist Seung Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) takes centre stage, a gambling addict desperate to make amends with his mother and daughter. Alongside some of the other players he challenges authority, much like in Zimbardo’s experiment, and forms an alliance. Unwilling to submit their fellow players to death, echoing Milgram’s study, establishing trust in those group circumstances is risky; in episode 4 interestingly titled ‘Stick to the Team’, we see the extent of this at lights out.

In episode 2 ‘Hell’, the players are split between a simple choice to either end the game or continue with the game if the majority agrees. A divide in moral reasoning occurs, with realities in the outside world as unforgiving as those in the game. This was an interesting twist, questioning the community spirit present in South Korean culture. It also takes Zimbardo’s study to another level: how do collective decisions fair in situations of financial hardship?

There are strong resemblances to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series and the Japanese original Battle Royale; the power of situational factors which overwhelm individuals who hold good intentions. The final two episodes, where identities are revealed, raise serious questions: did the players unwillingly conform to their role or did they just internalise roles when identifying with the groups that create them?  

Ultimately, both the experiments and game come down to simple reasoning in extreme situational circumstances. Do we have free will if the majority of us conform to authority despite moral objections?

- Reviewed by Priya Ahmed, PhD Health Psychology Student at Teesside University; Twitter: @PriyaAhmed94; E: [email protected]

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