Crab Mentality? No, Because They Are NOT People

There is a story that people will tell about watching a bunch of crabs who have been caught and placed into a bucket. The essence of the story is that as one of the crabs gets closer to climbing its way out, the rest of the crabs will grab onto it and pull it back in. Watch them for a while and you will see this repeating over and over and over again. You might be inclined to say that it is a pattern of behaviour and something that is a property of being a crab. The meaning most people give to the phenomenon is that “if I can’t have it, neither can you.”

Drawing this conclusion gives crabs way too much credit for knowing what is going on. However, if all of these people are correct, we should then stop eating crabs because this would indicate that they have a level of intelligence that moves them into the realm of sentient beings.

Take a moment to consider the level of self-awareness that a crab would need to possess in order to do what proponents of the crab mentality are suggesting. Below is a short list of some of the things that the crab would need to be aware of or have the cognitive capacity to process:

It would need to know that it is in a bucket.

It would need to know the shape of a bucket, that it has an open top and that anything that climbs to the top will be able to get out of the bucket.

It would need to know that it is a crab and that the rest of the things in the bucket are also crabs.

It would need to have a theory of mind that allowed for object permanence and environmental awareness in so far as it knew that on the other side of the bucket is the rest of the world / the environment from which it was transplanted.

It would need to have a well formed values system placing a higher value on being in the natural environment and / or a lower value being in the bucket.

It would need to have an established morality in order for it to make the decision that it is better that no one go free if it cannot go free. This would be broad enough to include the concept of fairness.

It would need to have a powerful motivational system that would have it choose to expend the energy needed to grab onto the crab that is trying to climb out and pull it back in.

This is making the assumption that to be the foil is not a cooperative behaviour and is just an innate quality of crabs because this is the most simple way to look at it. If craps are capable of collaborating together to make sure no one gets out of the bucket, we have no business catching them, let alone killing and eating them.

It seems unlikely that crabs know what a bucket is because those who have spent time in one probably didn’t live long enough after being put into it to ever find themselves in a second bucket. Since all crabs act the same way when they are put into containers – they try to move and find a place to hide – we’re observing automatic innate behaviour. It can’t have been learned or taught because buckets / escapable containers do not exist in a crabs natural habitat.

There is very little chance that a crab knows the shape of a bucket, that they have a top and that the boundary between the bucket and the rest of the world is located at the top. It is moving in the only direction it can, which is up, because there is no other direction.

It is the level of awareness of being a crap and also being in a bucket of crabs that is up for debate. Generally speaking, crabs are not social creatures and will tend to fight when mating, looking for a place to hide, and when there isn’t enough food for all of the crabs. But they would sooner avoid each-other than spend time fighting because fighting is dangerous.

Object permanence and environmental awareness are rather advanced mental processes. While I cannot say with certainty that a crab, when placed into a bucket will maintain an image of where it came from and will be aware that it is no longer in that place, these are things that much complex creates do not have.

Do crabs value not being in a bucket as better than being in a bucket? I don’t think they do. I think they would prefer be hiding under a rock somewhere or to be away from all of the other crabs, but to suggest that they would value being out of the bucket more highly than hiding or being alone somewhere remains to be see. I suppose we could figure it out by putting some rocks to hide under in a bucket and see what the crab does. We could also put one crab per bucket and observe their behaviour. If they still worked hard to get out, maybe we’d be start to make a call on their established values / priorities.

Crabs are not social so the suggestion that they would sooner keep crabs in the bucket with them is not supported by observation. Nor do they like fighting so much that they’ll pull back anyone who is climbing away from them just so they can fight. They don’t have a morality to violate by preventing one from getting away. Nor do they have the object permanence to know that any crab that was visible before but is no longer visible is still alive doing crab things elsewhere.

While crabs do have a motivational system, it is for things that they want or need, and things that they will find rewarding. Eating, hiding and reproducing are the three things that move crabs to act. They will not spend the effort to pull other crabs back to be close to them.

It’s this last factor that actually explains what is going on when a bunch of crabs are captured and put into a bucket of water. They are going to do the things that they find rewarding to do, and these things will be what they do when they are in their natural habitat – eat and hide. There won’t be much to eat in the bucket, so they’ll start looking for food. Having quickly exhausted the search at the bottom of the bucket, they’ll start looking everywhere else. At the same time, they will want to hide – it isn’t natural for crabs to be out in the open like they are in a bucket – and they’ll want to get away from the other crabs. They will go ANYWHERE they can and since there are crabs all over the bottom of the bucket, they start climbing. Their motivation is not to get out, but to get away from the rest of them, to find a hiding spot and to find something to eat.

Since there is nothing to climb on except other crabs, they climb on them. Again, they are not consciously going up, they are going away and that just happens to be up. As one climbs close to the top, those on the bottom, who share the same motivation to get away from the rest of them, will reach up and away from the mass of crabs and grab hold of the one that is close to reaching to top. They will pull, and since the top crab has nothing to anchor itself to, the weight of the other crabs will cause it to get pulled back down. The crab or crabs that pulled it down were not trying to pull it down, they were trying to pull themselves up in an effort to get away from the mass of crabs below.

All of the crabs remain captured because they lack the buoyancy needed to float to the top of the water and since they cannot support the weight of the crabs below, they fall down.

This is about the only part of the Crab Mentality metaphor that holds up when applied to groups of human beings. Other people grab onto someone they see doing better in an effort to pull themselves up. That person, however, isn’t well enough anchored to the better life to support the weight of those below them. As a consequence, they fall down to the level of the others who were reaching up and holding on.

The notion that when we are starting to do better, others are trying to hold us down, just like the bottom crabs holding back the one that is almost about to escape, is a completely different thing. People do act that way, and their goal is to hold others back. It’s a thing that exists, but not with crabs. Crabs couldn’t care less about escaping a bucket because they don’t know what a bucket is. All they know, if they know anything at all, is that there is something above them that they can grab onto that might help them pull themselves up and away from the mass below them. It doesn’t work out the way they wanted and all of the crabs remain captured.

The thing about crabs is much more simple. It is completely void of malice and is cynical only in the most literal meaning of the word. The crabs are looking out for themselves and are not looking out for the worst interests of the other crabs. They have no concept of winning only if everyone losses or losing if one of them wins.

So what?

Just as the “crab mentality” narrative is so easy to understand that it bypasses critical review, ANY narrative that is very easy to understand can bypass critical review. In fact, “ease of understanding” is an important and common heuristic that human beings use to evaluate when something is true. This is blind spot or weakness in our decision making process.

And yet, most of us accept as fact the underlying assumptions that would need to be true in order for the notion of a crab mentality to be accurate. Now ask “where else in my life am I doing this?” followed by “what might be the cost of doing it?”

One area in which many people find themselves making these mistakes is when we assume that the people we are talking to are very similar to us and have the same talent, abilities, intentions, and information / knowledge that we do. They do not. We all share a lot of things – physiological and neurological processing – but have unique experiential paths through life. Since experience determines knowledge and triggers gene expression, these underlying processes are running with different data and every individual is running processes other than those which are innately activated at birth. The end result is that in almost EVERY case, assuming that the person you are speaking to knows, thinks, and values the same things that you do is a mistake, and if you make it, it is going to hurt the quality and accuracy of your communication.

Ease of understanding is NOT an indication of truth, it is an indication that something was easy to understand.