When a large number of crabs are in a bucket, it is not neccessary to place a lid on said bucket to keep them in. This is due to the crabs' habit of pulling and tugging on one another, so that when one is about to escape over the top,the freedom-loving crab's compatriots pull him or her back in.

This term is often used to describe the behavior of subcultures in society who seem to do everything in their power to destroy the ambitions of those among them who wish to improve themselves. Examples include what is called the "alamihi crab syndrome" in Hawaii, and the behavior of inner-city Blacks on the mainland calling their compatriots who diverge from the subculture as "oreo" or worse.

Note that "crabs in a bucket" are an excellent example, along with "the Tragedy of the commons" of a Prisoner's Dilemma from Game Theory. It's in the interest of any one crab to use whatever comes to hand in order to help speed their escape from the bucket, including other crabs who have gotten a bit further up the wall. But if all crabs do this, as indeed they do, then no crabs can escape.

Not all Prisoner's Dilemma's can be exactly illustrated by the "crabs in a bucket" phenomenon, perhaps; I don't want to say that it subsumes all Prisoner's Dilemmas, but it is a wonderful example of one.

See also Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative which (perhaps amongst other things) tries to eliminate the harm caused by Prisoner's Dilemmas, and also predates Game Theory by some centuries.

First published October 20, 2004
Last revised October 20, 2004

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