Crab mentality is a phenomenon where people react negatively, in terms of their thoughts, statements, or actions, to those who get ahead of them, even though they don’t expect there to be direct benefits to doing so. For example, crab mentality can cause someone to discourage or sabotage their friend who is starting to do well at school, simply because they’re bitter about struggling with their own studies.
The name of this phenomenon comes from a story about crabs in a bucket, who fail to escape because they keep pulling back any crab who manages to get to the top.
Crab mentality can strongly influence people’s thoughts, statements, and actions in a variety of situations, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about crab mentality, understand what you can do to deal with it, and see how you can avoid having it yourself.
Examples of crab mentality
One example of crab mentality is someone who spreads malicious rumors in their workplace about a coworker who is up for a promotion, even though they don’t benefit from spreading these rumors.
Another example of crab mentality appears in a study that examined students’ behavior in situations where crab mentality is an accepted norm. Specifically, the researchers found that when students expect to be bullied for having higher-than-average achievement in school, they are more likely to do badly on exams, likely to ensure that their grades won’t stand out. Accordingly, when the student rankings were made private, which made it more difficult to discover what grade each student got, the students’ exam performance improved.
In addition, other examples of crab mentality exist in various domains. For example:
- When it comes to your finances, if you manage to start paying off your debts after a long string of poor financial decisions, people in your family who aren’t making similar progress might ridicule your achievements.
- When it comes to your physical health, if you manage to start exercising and improving your diet after neglecting to do so for a long time, acquaintances who aren’t able to do the same might try to sabotage your progress.
- When it comes to your social situation, if you start engaging in a new hobby that helps you socialize with new people, older friends might mock the hobby and discourage you from engaging in it.
Finally, the following is another example of crab mentality, which illustrates the story behind the name of this phenomenon:
“She reached down and picked a crab out of a bucket. As it came up it turned out that three more were hanging on to it.
‘A crab necklace?’ giggled Juliet.
‘Oh, that’s crabs for you,’ said Verity, disentangling the ones who had hitched a ride. ‘Thick as planks, the lot of them. That’s why you can keep them in a bucket without a lid. Any that tries to get out gets pulled back. Yes, as thick as planks.’”
— From “Unseen Academicals” in Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series (2009)
Note: crab mentality is sometimes also referred to as the crabs in a bucket mentality, the crab-bucket effect, the crabs in a barrel syndrome, the crab syndrome, or the pull-down syndrome.
The dangers of crab mentality
Crab mentality is associated with a wide variety of issues, both when it comes to the people who have it and when it comes to the people that it’s directed against. Most notably:
- Crab mentality can harm the performance of the people that it’s being directed against, and can also hurt them in other ways, such as by causing them to feel isolated.
- Crab mentality can hinder the ability of individuals within groups to work together, and hinder the ability of different groups to collaborate with each other.
- Crab mentality can make the general group environment much more unpleasant.
- Crab mentality can cause the people who have it to waste time doing things that don’t benefit them.
- Crab mentality can amplify negative emotions, such as greed and jealousy, among the people who have it.
- Crab mentality can cause people to act in a way that is socially undesirable, and consequently to push other people away.
Why people have crab mentality
People’s crab mentality can be attributed to various causes.
First, in some cases, crab mentality is driven by emotional motivation, such as when people want to feel better about themselves. This happens, for example, when crab mentality is used as a tool for coping with envy, or as a way to make someone feel better about their own status, by diminishing the accomplishments of others.
In addition, in some cases, crab mentality is associated with various cognitive biases and other forms of irrationality. This includes, for example, the zero-sum bias, which causes people to mistakenly view certain situations as being zero-sum, meaning that they incorrectly believe that someone else’s gains will come at the expense of their loss. This bias can play a role, for instance, when someone assumes that another person’s progress comes at the expense of their own achievements, even though that’s not the case.
Similarly, another bias that can lead people to have a crab mentality is the bandwagon effect, which is a bias that causes people to think or act in a certain way, because they believe that others are doing the same. This bias can, for instance, lead to the spread of crab mentality spreads among a social group, such as a group of friends at school or a group of coworkers at a workplace, when people start displaying this mentality because they see others doing the same.
Finally, note that crab mentality doesn’t apply to behavior that’s driven primarily by strategic considerations, meaning that it doesn’t apply in cases where the person who displays it expects to directly benefit from it. For example, if your colleague is being considered for a promotion, spreading malicious rumors about them because you’re bitter that you’re not being considered for the promotion does constitute crab mentality, whereas spreading rumors because you think that it will improve your chances of getting the promotion does not.
Overall, people can have crab mentality for various reasons, such as because they’re trying to feel better about themselves, because they view other people’s progress as coming at their own expense, or because they see others displaying the same kind of mentality.
Note: crab mentality is discussed primarily in the context of relationships between individuals (e.g., when it comes to how one person acts toward another). However, it can also apply to relationships between individuals and groups (e.g., when it comes to how a person feels about a group), and it can also apply to individuals acting together as a group (e.g., when it comes to how a group acts toward some individual).
How to tell if someone has crab mentality
It’s useful to be able to tell whether someone—including you—has crab mentality.
The main sign of crab mentality is that someone often tries to discourage or sabotage others, in cases where there are no direct benefits to doing so.
In addition, other signs that someone might have crab mentality include the following:
- The tendency to speak negatively about others.
- The tendency to react negatively to the accomplishments of others, often in an automatic manner.
- The tendency to try to partake in the accomplishments of others, in an attempt to diminish them.
- The tendency to view the accomplishments of others as reflecting negatively on oneself.
- The tendency to view others as being in direct competition with oneself, even when that’s not the case.
- Expression of satisfaction toward other people’s misfortune.
- Lack of compassion toward others.
- An inability to work well with others.
- The tendency to complain and criticize constantly, often without any attempts at solving problems.
- Insecurity and bitterness toward one’s own abilities, accomplishments, or status. However, some people may display the opposite pattern, and try to inflate their own abilities, accomplishments, or status, in an attempt to diminish those of others.
How to avoid crab mentality
The first step to avoiding a crab mentality is to recognize the fact that you’re displaying it, or that you’re about to do so. You can do this by going over the common signs of crab mentality, but the main key thing to consider is whether your thoughts, statements, or actions involve discouraging or sabotaging someone for no good reason.
Once you realize that you have crab mentality, you should try to resolve the underlying issues that are causing you to display it in the first place. For example, if your issue is that you suffer from the zero-sum bias, which means that you tend to assume that other people’s accomplishments necessarily detract from your own, you can try to slow down and consider whether this is actually the case.
Furthermore, you can try to promote positive patterns of thinking that can help avoid this mentality. For example, instead of obsessing over what others are doing and achieving, you can try to focus on your own goals and progress.
Similarly, you can try to look for the positive aspects of other people’s accomplishments. For example, if you see someone achieve something that you also want to achieve, then instead of being bitter about it and trying to diminish their accomplishment, you can try to see what kind of lessons you can learn from them when it comes to your own journey.
However, in some cases, it might not be possible to modify your mindset directly, in which case you should focus on modifying your actions instead. For example, if someone close to you has accomplished something substantial that you also wanted to do, you might not manage to be truly happy for them. But, even if you can’t successfully modify your mindset, you can still modify your actions, and act happy for that person, or at least avoid bringing them down.
When it comes to this, one useful tool that you can use to avoid displaying crab mentality is the golden rule, which is a moral principle that denotes that you should treat others the same way you would like to be treated yourself. In the context of crab mentality, using the golden rule could lead you, for instance, to ask yourself “how would I want others to treat me if I had accomplished this?”, and to then act accordingly.
Overall, to avoid crab mentality, you should recognize that this is an issue for you, and then address the underlying issues that cause you to experience it, and potentially also modify your mindset in other ways, such as by focusing on lessons that you can learn from other people’s accomplishment. Furthermore, in cases where you can’t avoid this mentality, you can still avoid letting it control your actions, for example by making sure to avoid making unnecessary disparaging comments.
How to deal with crab mentality in others
As when avoiding crab mentality in yourself, the first step to dealing with crab mentality in other people is to recognize this mentality in them. When doing this, you should try to understand how this mentality influences them, when it comes to their thoughts, statements, and actions, and also try to understand what’s causing them to have this mentality in the first place. Then, there are several things that you can do in response.
You can try to change their mindset and behavior directly, using similar techniques as you would use to avoid crab mentality in yourself. This includes, for example, helping them see that a certain situation isn’t zero-sum like they assumed, or teaching them about the golden rule and asking them to apply it. Furthermore, you can also do things such as call them out on their behavior, or explain why their mindset is problematic for themself and for others.
In cases where you can’t change people’s mindset and behavior directly, you can focus on your own mindset and actions instead, in a way that reduces the impact that their crab mentality has on you. For example, you can:
- Ignore them.
- Realize that their crab mentality is driven mostly by their own issues, rather than by anything that you did, even if their behavior is directed at you.
- Accept that because people’s crab mentality is generally their own issue, there might not be anything that you can do to solve it.
- Forgive other people for engaging in crab mentality, not necessarily because they deserve it, but because that’s the best thing you can do for yourself.
- Focus on your own progress and accomplishments, rather than on other people’s negativity.
- Refuse to engage in crab mentality yourself, and even do the opposite, by actively celebrating the achievement of others.
Some of these techniques can also help reduce people’s crab mentality over time.
Finally, in some cases, the best long-term solution is to simply distance yourself from people who display crab mentality. This isn’t always an option, for example if your colleagues are the ones displaying crab mentality and changing jobs isn’t currently an option, but it is something that you can do in some cases, such as when it comes to your circle of friends.
Overall, to deal with crab mentality in others, you can either try to reduce this mentality directly, by using similar methods as you would use to avoid crab mentality in yourself, or you can focus on your own mindset and actions instead, for example by realizing that people’s crab mentality is driven primarily by their own issues, rather than by anything that you did.
There are some concepts that are closely associated with crab mentality, such as:
- The tall poppy syndrome, which describes a phenomenon where people disparage those who do well, similarly to crabs mentality. This phenomenon is based on a story in Livy’s “The History of Rome” (Book I). In the story, Sextus Tarquinius, who was the son of the Roman King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, had become beloved and powerful in the city of Gabii, and sent a messenger to his father asking what to do next. The king, instead of replying in words, walked out to the garden together with the messenger, and used his cane to strike off the heads of the tallest poppies. Upon returning, the messenger shared the story of what happened, and the King’s son understood his father’s intentions, and proceeded to remove all the principal people of Gabii, through various methods, such as prosecution, banishment, and assassination.
- The allegory of the long spoons, which describes a situation where people are seated at a table with food that they’re unable to eat because the spoons that they have are too long for them to feed themselves. The solution is for people to use the long spoons to feed each other, showing how, in certain situations, cooperation is crucial, and can benefit all those who are involved.
- Schadenfreude, which is satisfaction that’s derived from someone else’s misfortune.
- The mentality of “if I can’t have it, neither can you”.
- Various idioms, such as “misery loves company”.
Crab mentality in specific cultures
Crab mentality is often described as being particularly characteristic of certain cultures, and especially Philippine culture. In this context, it’s sometimes also referred to using similar terms, that are based on the Filipino Tagalog language, such as kanya-kanya syndrome, talangka [crab] mentality, isip talangka [thinking like a crab], and utak talangka [crab brain].
However, the fact that this phenomenon is often discussed in the context of Philippine culture does not mean that Filipinos are the only ones that display this behavior, or that they display it more frequently or to a greater degree than others.
Furthermore, this term and similar ones have often been used to describe members of other cultures. As one book on the topic states:
“Hawaiians are said to be afflicted with a psychological disorder known as the ‘‘Alamihi Syndrome.’ An ‘alamihi is a common black crab that lives among the rocks along Hawaiian shores. Crab catchers trap them in nets, and then dump them into buckets until the time comes to take them home for cooking. Critics of uncooperative Hawaiians love to compare them with the ‘alamihi, which always manage to pull down the ones who are trying to climb up and over the sides of a bucket. This analogy has been repeated so often that now it is a part of the standard lore about Hawaiians’ behavior to other Hawaiians. By now even Hawaiians themselves believe it.
Incidentally, the same analogy is used against the Maoris in New Zealand, against coastal Indians in Canada and the United States, Chamorros in Guam, and the natives of many another place.”
— From “Ku Kanaka—Stand Tall: A Search for Hawaiian Values” (1986)
Furthermore, as one study states:
“…even if you call it talangka mentality, indigenizing the animal does not make the expression indigenous.”
Overall, although the concept of “crab mentality” is sometimes associated with certain cultures, these associations are often dubious, and you should be wary of them. In addition, even if crab mentality is associated with certain cultures more than others, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all members of such cultures display crab mentality, or that members of other cultures never display this mentality.
Summary and conclusions
- Crab mentality is a phenomenon where people react negatively, in terms of their thoughts, statements, or actions, to those who get ahead of them, even though they don’t expect there to be direct benefits to doing so.
- People can have crab mentality for various reasons, such as because they’re trying to feel better about themselves, because they view other people’s progress as coming at their own expense, or because they see others displaying the same kind of mentality.
- The main sign of crab mentality is that someone often tries to discourage or sabotage others, in cases where there are no direct benefits to doing so; other common signs include reacting negatively to the accomplishment of others and expressing satisfaction toward the misfortune of others.
- To avoid crab mentality, you should first recognize that this is an issue for you, and then try to resolve it, by addressing the underlying issues that are causing you to experience it in the first place, by modifying your mindset directly, or by changing your actions to avoid letting this mindset dictate them.
- To deal with crab mentality in others, you can either try to reduce this mentality directly, by using similar methods as you would use to avoid crab mentality in yourself, or you can focus on your own mindset and actions instead, for example by realizing that people’s crab mentality is driven primarily by their own issues, rather than by anything that you did.