It is a funny thing about crabs; when a single crab is placed in a bucket, it will surely seek to climb up and escape. However, in a bucket full of crabs, none can escape as the crabs pull each other down preventing any crab from climbing the bucket and escaping to freedom.
Sociologists use the term “crab mentality” or “crabs in a bucket” in metaphorical reference to anyone who is trying to better his or her circumstances, but is prevented by others who do not want them to be successful and drag them down to share the collective fate of the group.
Crab mentality expresses the “if I can’t have it neither can you” idea when members of a group seek to negate or diminish the accomplishments of any member who achieves success above others in the group. I have no idea why the crabs do it, but in the analogy to human behavior, envy and jealously are the usual suspects for crab mentality.
The crabs in a bucket syndrome is the negative attitude people have toward the success of others. Many of us can relate to efforts to start a business, to improve our education, to begin exercising or dieting, only to be dissuaded by some around us telling us that it is not worth the effort.
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But crab mentality is not limited to individuals. It can be observed in the behavior of groups, communities and nations. And although crab mentality is universal, in some societies it becomes a coordinated national activity under the disguises of egalitarianism, wealth redistribution, income equality, and similar efforts to pull down those who reach for success.
This is, of course, the official policy of communist regimes such as Cuba and North Korea where collectivist ideologies appeal to our sense of envy and promote a desire for the unearned. In China, when communist leader Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms in 1984, he sought to counter the crab mentality by famously telling the Chinese people that “to get rich is glorious.” In contrast, in Cuba General Rau Castro has insisted that “non-state” economic activities will not be allowed to lead to the “concentration of wealth.”
In Eastern Europe, following decades of communist experience, post-communist societies today still suffer from severe cases of crab mentality syndrome as they try to foster entrepreneurship and elevate economic success. More subtle and unofficial forms of crab mentality can be observed in Latin cultures, among others, where there is a certain stigma towards the business community and success in general.
Historically in Europe, and by cultural transmission in Latin America, the good life aspired by most was a life of leisure; a life free from work, epitomized by the gentleman aristocrat who did not dirty his hands with business. In Latin America, this translates into governmental policies that fail to foster the conditions under which individuals can create, trade, and prosper to escape their poverty bucket, and in occupational choices overwhelmingly emphasizing medicine and law.
In the United States, we are beginning to condemn individuality, businesses, and the profit motive and to promote a culture of being taken care off inside the communitarian bucket. We seem to forget that when someone is taking care of us, it means someone is deciding for us. Our freedom is diminished.
To escape the bucket we need to promote societal attitudes where the focus is on making the most of our own lives, not on envying the achievements of others. We need to value, not punish success. We need to appreciate that the unconsumed wealth (i.e., accumulated capital) of those that have escaped the poverty bucket before us, are the savings that, when deployed by entrepreneurs, fuel the economic growth of a nation.
We should find inspiration in the success of those that have escaped the bucket and we should mentor others to climb the sides of the bucket. Perhaps, if we climb together, we can tilt the bucket and we can all get out.