The Dangerous Stanford Jail Experiment and 'The Squid Game': Their Strange Relationship

The script of The Squid Game, the new Netflix production, had been gathering dust in the drawer of its director Hwang Dong-Hyuk for 10 years. His lines hide an argument of criticism of the desire to achieve success and status in Korean society, but with a permanent allegory of the purest sadism. The nine chapters embrace existential dilemmas and seduce the minds of viewers through the conclusions they have already dived into. social experiments that were controversial in the scientific community.

The series, which has become the most watched in the platform’s history, shows how 456 strangers – all in debt – agree to participate in a game that promises them millions of won (Korean currency). Gone is your freedom. Prime need and survival, soon, too. The rules before starting are clear: the player cannot stop playing, the player who refuses to play will be eliminated and the games will end if the majority agrees. What they do not say is that whoever loses will die, and for each death, the final prize will be greater.

The players, clad in numbered green pajamas, sleep each day in bunk beds located in a large warehouse waiting for the next test. Their kidnappers, wearing red jumpsuits, masks and weapons, present the game to life or death. Fear breathes in their necks, but with an air of melancholy, because the architects of this macabre game they go to children’s games to test the abilities of the participants.

The essence of the series is reminiscent of an event that took place in 1971: the Stanford jail experiment. Converted into one of the most famous psychological studies in history, several researchers led by Philip Zimbardo – a professor of psychology at Stanford University – sought to know the influence of an extreme environment on the life of the prisoner and the behaviors they could develop. To do this, they recruited, on the one hand, volunteers who would act as guards in a fictitious prison.

The study was funded by the United States Navy. They were looking for an explanation to violence in prisons. Thus, Zimbardo and his team set out to investigate the behaviors and simulate a jail in the basement of the department of Psychology at Stanford University.

Sanity did not last long between the fictitious inmates, who were young university students, and the fake prisoners, volunteers armed with batons, military uniforms and mirrored glasses that prevented eye contact – something used to create a feeling of depersonalization. The experiment got out of hand and the prisoners suffered and accepted sadistic treatment at the hands of the guards. After six days, the study was canceled.

Guillermo Fouce, professor in social psychology at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), explains that the Stanford prison experiment is a classic of psychology that shows how we assume and fulfill the roles that are assigned to us. Taken to a limit questioned by the scientific community, Zimbardo’s study analyzes “the assumption of roles randomly and evil is found,” says the psychologist. “Groupthink, violence, imitation appear”, he adds, and people end up developing a series of behaviors in which they force the other to bend. “What he ends up concluding is that we cannot explain reality only by individual variables, because in the right circumstances we could all be potential killers.”

As Fouce points out, this ethical dilemma is equally posed in The squid game. “Imitation and competition are what produce a series of dynamics that take us beyond what we would be able to do individually“, he says. In his opinion, the series raises questions such as how far we would be willing to go, and moral dilemmas.” They question us, “he assures, and shows a situation in which” if I say yes to something small, I will tend to say that yes to something bigger. ”

The expert remembers another experiment that saves the basic drives of the Netflix series. In 1963, years before Zimbardo carried out, Stanley Milgram started a similar study at Yale University. The objective was to know how a participant could come to obey the orders of an authority, even if they came into conflict with their conscience and personal values. An experiment that tried to explain how so many people could collaborate with the Nazi regime and with the crimes they committed.

The reification theory is one of the conclusions that can be drawn from this experiment and that establishes the foundation of respect for authority. As with the hijackers in The Squid Game, Soldiers will follow, obey, and execute orders and instructions issued by superiors under the premise that responsibility for their actions rests with their hierarchical superiors. Both, says Fouce, “they dare to do things that they would not do individually”.

An ‘innocent’ game

The series, explains Fouce, uses details important to the human psyche. The players are forced to participate in tests that, in reality, are children’s games. For Fouce, “they are games that we know and are innocent”, so “They play with it, because when it is a childhood game, nothing will happen”.

The particularly bloody scene that shows one of the chapters, in which the players begin to kill each other, delves into some fundamental questions of social psychology. As Fouce recounts, competitiveness is an essential factor to generate a conflict or a war, because “it generates different identities and a goal to achieve.”

The association by groups and the pitched battle that is created in one of the scenes of The Squid Game hides another essential aspect in psychology as it is the power of imitation when we are subjected to certain social situations. According to Fouce, in this sense the context and the person become important.

An imitation that, in a way, can be transferred to the viewer. “It is a very controversial issue”, acknowledges the psychologist, but in the case of the series, “it is dangerous to de-virtualize violence, because I am playing at being violent and I don’t see the consequences it has.” Note that this type of content “can lead to reproduction” as has happened with other types of viral games. There are already on social networks who denounce that minors play in the schoolyard at Green light, red light, one of the tests included in the Netflix series, in which children simulated shootings and deaths as occurs in The Squid Game.

Now, why is this Korean series being so successful? For Fouce the explanation is that collects one of the most universal and most consumed basic emotions: violence. In addition, it slides a kind of identification with the system in which the participants never feel that they are winning. “It hides a discredit of the institutions and connects with a cultural climate and a way of doing things,” says the expert, who concludes that if there is something positive that can be extracted from these series, it is that “they encourage moral reflection on how we are and how we are Why do we do what we do”.

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