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Squid Game and The Psychology of Desperation

Mugunghwa Kkoci Pieot Seumnida

The catchy Korean phrase, hauntingly uttered in a sing-song manner by a childlike voice, has found itself among the most recognizable sounds to have come from 2021. To those who still have yet to watch the show from which it originated, the tune sounds innocent enough despite its ubiquitous nature; from TikToks and tweets to meme compilations on YouTube, this sound has become quite inescapable to anyone with access to the Internet. To those who have watched the show, however, this phrase elicits a much more negative reaction. After all, despite its inherently non-threatening tone, it signifies the start of a hair-raising and utterly shocking death game, one of many present in the internationally-acclaimed Korean Netflix show Squid Game. Currently the most-watched show in Netflix history, its popularity (and notoriety) transcends continental boundaries. 

Wait a minute, a death game? Why would anyone bet on their lives like that?

Well, for starters, the entire premise of Squid Game revolves around a series of survival games marketed exclusively towards individuals with millions’ worth of unpaid debts. The grand prize is equivalent to $38.4 million dollars. The catch? If you lose, you die.

As the show reeled in more and more audience members, many people began to question how these contestants could so voluntarily participate in something so dangerous (after all, participation in the games is strictly consent-based). With over four hundred contestants, only one would get to walk out of the game alive, carrying the $38.4-million-dollar prize. Even after being given the opportunity to walk out of the game safely (but empty-handed) after the first game, most of the survivors ultimately decided to return to the game and continue playing despite having witnessed numerous other contestants being violently killed in the game. One very clear thread runs through the psyches of each of these contestants: desperation. They needed the money badly, and when they finally saw a chance to right the wrongs that put them in this financial rut in the first place, they took it.

Although it sounds counterintuitive, this seemingly illogical behavior is actually a manifestation of human survival instincts when faced with desperate situations. Portrayed in the format of a survival game, this concept seems absurd; however, in reality, risk-taking in the face of hopeless or dangerous situations is not an uncommon behavior. From refugees crossing oceans in an attempt to reach safety or migrants trekking across scorching deserts in search for a better life to people jumping out of burning buildings, humans – for centuries – have made countless decisions to take perilous actions when they feel that their current situation is unconducive to life or livelihood. When stuck between a rock and a hard place, the only place left for the mouse to go is straight toward the cat’s mouth- where it at least has a chance to fight, no matter how small.

What is desperation?

As humans, we live our everyday lives with a myriad of hopes, ranging from the most mundane to the most unattainable. We might hope that the french fries we ordered aren't undercooked or that the weather today would be sunny. On the other hand, we might hope for something more significant like success, health, or happiness in the long run. According to Susi Ferrarrello Ph.D. of Psychology Today, desperation is the loss of hope in one’s life. Although it can take on the form of giving up (which most people most closely associate with the word “desperation”), it can also inspire people to carry out actions that they would not otherwise have done under normal circumstances; these actions can include decisions that could possibly endanger oneself or others. As such, people in desperate situations may take higher risks than what others in normal situations would perceive as worth taking (Hayenhjelm, 2006).

What is the significance of risk-taking?

Taking risks is a necessary aspect of existence. The society we live in is considered a risk society, meaning that taking risks is a normal and crucial part of our lives (Beck 1992; Giddens 2000). Without the ability to take risks, we would not be able to advance financially, personally, academically, professionally, or otherwise. According to Kacelnik and Bateson’s risk-sensitivity theory (1997), people take risks when they perceive that their goals or outcomes could not be achieved in the low-risk situation that they’re currently in; by taking this chance-- in conditions of high need-- they would at least have a shot at attaining the goal that would otherwise have been impossible to achieve in the low-risk situation.

Under the relative-state model, risk-taking behavior can be divided into two categories: need-based risk-taking and ability-based risk-taking (Mishra et al. 2018). The former is consistent with  the risk sensitivity theory and involves situations in which the individual takes risks out of necessity, where taking on a high-risk situation is perceived as being no more harmful than staying in their unproductive low-risk situation (somewhat of a nothing-to-lose situation). An example of this is refugees taking on a dangerous cross-continental journey to escape a war zone. In contrast, the latter involves risk-taking for the sake of reaping a higher payoff, where the probability of success is increased based on one’s abilities or advantageous situations. One example of ability-based risk-taking is an individual taking out a hefty student loan in college because she’s confident that her skills would eventually land her a high-paying job, which would not only be able to pay off her student loans but also afford her financial stability for the rest of her life. In both cases, there’s a possibility that the risk taken would worsen the situation; however, what’s at stake for each situation is completely different from the other. 

So how do these concepts relate to Squid Game?

The contestants in Squid Game-- all desperately indebted-- took the risk of death in a need-based manner due to their loss of hope in ever finding another way to repay their debts. When someone is buried this deeply in desperation, it’s not unusual for them to choose to take such extreme measures to try to fix their seemingly hopeless situation. In this case, the contestants took the risk in response to vulnerability, a concept in which the risk-taker is forced to make an extreme decision because they see no other alternative (Hayenhjelm 2006). Although the risk may be perceived as disproportionately negative by those in normal situations, the possibility that it might yield a positive outcome actually provides a sense of hope for individuals who have lost hope in other efforts. Even with a dismally low chance of success (or in this case, survival), a small amount of hope is better than no hope at all.

What lessons can we learn from this?

Despite the absurdity of its premise, Squid Game is a great metaphor of a very real, very human condition that countless people throughout history have experienced. Both in the large scale and in everyday life, people have often been provoked to take great risks by the persistent feeling that there’s no other way out. When we are desperate, we sometimes make decisions in a way that seems irrational to others; in the process, we might even do things that would ultimately lead to our downfall. The key takeaway from this? Never lose hope. Hope is one of the most fundamental aspects of human existence, and without it, we would start to lose our meaning. 

Oftentimes, we  find ourselves in circumstances where every route appears to be a dead end. And in some instances, that might be true; sometimes, we need to know when to stop trying if something is  impossible to accomplish (which, believe it or not, some things are. It’s counterproductive and possibly harmful to our mental health to believe that we can do everything- we all have our limits). However, in most cases, there are various options that we might not even see when we’re desperate. We’re often too focused on the things that don’t work out to even notice that another door has opened in the other direction. When faced with such difficult situations, it’s imperative that we hold on to hope. Without it, we might be tempted to make irrational and self-destructive decisions or worse: put our lives on the line for something that could’ve been better resolved another way. Only hope can defeat desperation, so keep it close to your heart at all times.

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