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'Crab mentality:' How we're 'deep-wired' to ensure collective demise at work

Lianna Brinded
Head of Finance, Yahoo Finance UK
Crabs in a bucket. Photo: WikiCommons/Elpipster

Crab mentality is derived from a pattern of behaviour that has been observed in crabs when they’re trapped in a bucket. Even though any crab would be able to escape in that situation, the group of crabs work to pull that would-be successful crab down. In other words, the group would rather all share a collective demise than let one crab be successful.

As part of the first episode in Yahoo Finance’s new podcast series Yahoo Finance Presents: It’s A Jungle Out There, famous neuroscientist and executive coach Dr Tara Swart explained that this type of group behaviour is “deep-wired” into our brains, even though mutual self-destruction seems against survival instincts.

“The deepest wiring that relates to this crab mentality is called loss aversion. It’s the fact that in our brains we are wired to avoid loss, twice as much as we are to get a reward,” said Dr Swart, who is also a medical doctor, faculty at MIT Sloan, and award-winning author of  Neuroscience for Leadership and  The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life.

“So, seeing someone else as successful feels in our brains that we’re losing a piece of our pie potentially. Even though we may get a smaller piece of pie — even though that’s part of something larger and better and the group doing well — it doesn’t feel like that to us in our brains when we’re just trying to survive.”

The analogy for the workplace is best described as “if I can’t have it, neither can you”. Humans will enact this by trying to reduce the self-confidence of any colleague who achieves success beyond the others, out of spite, envy or resentment — even if it means threatening their own survival.

“So if we see a crab escaping, I guess which is like someone getting a promotion, that makes us think that we’re not favoured or we’re not successful and it stimulates this fear of change […] as the other crab that makes us feel fear, shame, disgust, sadness and even anger,” Dr Swart added.

The “Jungle” podcast, which launched on 17 October, takes  a wild approach to work and management issues.  In a 10-part series, it unpacks productivity lessons from nature, talking to the experts about how to get the most out of your career and colleagues.

“This is the lovely thing about your series of podcasts: we have forgotten that basically we’re still animals,” said Dr Swart. “We’re animals that can walk on two legs and can speak and can plan for the future, but we’re still animals.”

To hear how Dr Swart’s tips for overcoming Crab Mentality, and how to deal with toxic bosses and colleagues, download the full episode on Apple, ACast, or Google podcasts. You can also find more articles on the subject on the dedicated Work & Management hub at Yahoo Finance UK.