“Crabs In A Bucket” As An Analogy For Modern Human Society

crabs in bucketSometimes it helps to use metaphors to describe the current situations that we are living under to help people see what is right in front of them. The violence and twisted mentality that consumes many cultures around the world is difficult for someone to notice when they have grown up around it, and know nothing else.

Recently I came across an extremely interesting concept that does a really good job at depicting the current mentality that many people have in their personal relationships as well as their business and political ventures.

That is the “crab mentality” which looks at the world as a zero sum game, where there is no such thing as a mutually beneficial exchange. Every situation has winners and losers with this world view, and everyone is out to make someone else a loser. In reality, there are solutions that people can come to without getting hostile with one another, that leads to an outcome where everyone involved is better off than they were before.

According to a Wikipedia entry:

Crab mentality is a phrase popular among Filipinos, and was first coined by writer Ninotchka Rosca, in reference to the phrase crabs in a bucket It describes a way of thinking best described by the phrase “if I can’t have it, neither can you.” The metaphor refers to a pot of crabs. Individually, the crabs could easily escape from the pot, but instead, they grab at each other in a useless “king of the hill” competition which prevents any from escaping and ensures their collective demise. The analogy in human behavior is that members of a group will attempt to “pull down” (negate or diminish the importance of) any member who achieves success beyond the others, out of envy, conspiracy or competitive feelings.

The concept figures prominently in Terry Pratchett‘s novel “Unseen Academicals.” A fish monger does not bother to keep a lid on the crab bucket because “any that tries to get out gets pulled back.” The protagonist comes to realize that his social status results not from external repression, but from his own low expectations of himself: “The worst of it is, the crab that mostly keeps you down is you.”

This term is broadly associated with short-sighted, non-constructive thinking rather than a unified, long-term, constructive mentality. It is also often used colloquially in reference to individuals or communities attempting to improve their socio-economic situations, but kept from doing so by others attempting to ride upon their coat-tails or those who simply resent their success.

The popularity of the phrase has made accusing opponents of crab mentality a common form of defense against criticism, whether the criticism is valid or not. In logic, this tactic is considered a common logical fallacy known as argumentum ad invidiam, or appeal to envy.

This mentality is probably relevant to almost anyone’s life, as we can see it all around us, especially in the social institutions that hold us hostage. Most people look at their everyday encounters as if they were all zero sum games, where they can only get ahead by knocking someone else down.

Isn’t it possible for everyone to just do their own thing, and use their intellect to work things out when they get in each other’s way? This seems like a far safer and more productive way of doing business than we see today, where many people think that they only way to get ahead is to cut others down. The mainstream culture has yet to catch onto this concept, but that doesn’t mean that we have to stagnate with them. In our everyday encounters, business interactions and especially our conflicts, we can take the high road by using our intellect to meet our needs without violating the rights of others.

Even in today’s world, with seemingly limited resources we can still all get by without slaughtering each other and stirring up trouble.


John Vibes writes for True Activist and is an author, researcher and investigative journalist who takes a special interest in the counter culture and the drug war.

This article (“Crabs In A Bucket” As An Analogy For Modern Human Society) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to the author and TrueActivist.com.

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