Capturing Indian ‘crab’ behaviour

Sudipta Sarangi | Updated on April 01, 2013

Crabs pulling one another down is touted as a typical Indian trait.

An attempt to maximise one’s own utility can lead to the Indian crab mindset.

A few years ago, someone told me a story about an Indian businessman, who made big bucks exporting crabs in containers with no lids.

A cost-conscious rival who just couldn’t bear the suspense finally asked our gentleman how he managed to export his crabs in lidless containers. Didn’t those crustaceans simply crawl away?

Prompt came the response: These were Indian crabs, after all. There was nothing to worry here because the moment one crab tried climbing up, the others would pull him down. So long as he ensured the crabs were Indian, the exporter did not have to spend on lids for the containers. The savings from that were seemingly significant enough, in a business where incremental cost advantages mattered.

Why are we crabs, after all?

I cannot vouch for the story’s veracity, but crabs pulling each other down is definitely a powerful metaphor for what is often touted as a very typical Indian trait — of not letting the others forge ahead. Forget helping each other, Indians are apparently predisposed to even pulling others down at the slightest hint of their doing better.

In casual conversation, jealousy is what is suggested as the usual motive for the above behaviour. However, I am not sure that this may be the only, or even the most likely, explanation.

One can examine the crab problem from two different viewpoints.

The first is whether this has to do with Indians primarily caring about how they are doing relative to others — the jealousy-type argument.

The second is whether they engage in such behaviour, not because of any concern over how others are doing, but the possibility of it adversely affecting their own well-being.

I will start with providing two explanations that seem to vindicate the ‘relative-outcomes’ argument.

That argument can very well hold in countries with high ethnic, linguistic or religious heterogeneity. One way to capture it is using an ethno-linguistic fractionalisation index, measuring the probability that two persons drawn at random from a country's population will not belong to the same ethno-linguistic group.

One such exercise, carried out in 2000, developed three separate measures capturing such heterogeneity based on community, language and religion. For India, the corresponding index values were 0.418, 0.806, and 0.326.

The inference from it is that the highest diversity was in language — the probability of any two Indians drawn randomly from its large population not having the same linguistic background is 0.806 — whereas heterogeneity along community and religion lines wasn’t as marked.

In general, the more heterogeneous a society is, the higher are the efforts by people of one group to pull down those of others. But this hypothesis assumes Oriya crabs will not pull down one another, just as Malayali crabs surely wouldn’t with their own brethren. That, however, may not be the case always. An alternative explanation supporting the relative-outcomes argument could be that people actually are more bothered about how those from within their circles, as opposed to outsiders, are doing.

In this case, it is the felt need to “keep up with the Singhs” that pushes them to emulate, if not surpass, the attainment levels of their cohorts. The envy stemming from not succeeding on that count, in turn, induces crab-like behaviour.

But I seriously doubt whether this can be seen only as an Indian trait. People in many other parts of the world would also, perhaps, lay claim to this unenviable trait.

Crabs sans envy

Instead of looking at relative arguments to account for crab-like behaviour supposedly unique to Indians, one could also postulate envy-free explanations. This can arise from individuals simply caring about their own well-being, rather than comparing themselves with others — be it insiders or outsiders.

Imagine, for instance, a team in which every single member has a specialised skill complementing that of the others, with each of these separate skills jointly contributing to the success of the team.

This lends itself to a situation where the team just cannot afford losing any member.

So, if a certain member of the group starts climbing up — by doing better in life — the sheer fear of that individual’s exit pushes everyone to pull him down. Here, it is not envy, but concern for own well-being, arising from reduced group performance, that induces the crab mentality.

Next, consider another scenario, where you have a group of friends from whom you seek help. If one or more of them plans to move elsewhere, it means a smaller friend circle to rely on and, hence, a lower probability of getting help.

Another way of arguing the same is that if one of my friends starts doing well, he may not need me anymore and, therefore, wouldn’t be all that inclined to help me either in future.

It, then, induces in me desire to pull him down — back to my own level, where I will have peace of mind from the knowledge that he will need my help. To use another nautical analogy, I want to scuttle his boat and still want him to help me. That admittedly sounds incredulous, but my rejoinder to that would be that I am also game to go out on a fishing expedition with him when he wants me to.

Thus, it is not relative comparison, but an attempt to maximise one’s own utility that can also lead to the Indian crab mindset.

Hopefully, these alternative explanations will help assuage the guilt of some who have pulled other crabs down!

(The author teaches industrial organisation and applied game theory at Louisiana State University. He is also a Visiting Professor at the School of Management, KIIT University, Bhubaneswar.)

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Published on April 01, 2013
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