The Crab Effect


When I was at East Tennessee State University working toward my Bachelor of Social Work degree, I learned of the “Crab Effect.”

The Crab Effect can be illustrated in the following story:

While vacationing in Florida, a man observed a bucket of crabs on a fishing dock. While all of the crabs were either motionless or squirming at the bottom of the bucket, one little crab kept crawling up the side in an effort to reach the top.

Each time the crab made his way closer to the top rim, a crab from below would reach up and pull him back down. Time and again, the little crab would climb the wall and time and again, one from below would pull him back.

This one crab did not want to be confined. He believed he had a choice and did not have to accept his lot in life. He was willing to venture outside of his imposed boundaries in search for freedom.

Unfortunately, the others in the group did not recognize that they too had a choice, and would not allow the venturing crab to leave the rest of them behind.

The same is often true in human behavior. As students, we learned that, very often, people trapped in poverty, in gangs, or in destructive lifestyles attempt to get out. Like the hopeful crab, the journey out of the box begins.

For those trapped in poverty, the most accessible route out may be education. If such a person studies hard and begins to excel, he may find that those around him begin to actively discourage his efforts, even mocking his success.

For those trapped in gangs, the operative phrase is “blood in, blood out,” meaning that gang members often endure a brutal beating as part of gang initiation and that an attempt to leave the gang will result in his homicide.

One does not have to be in a gang, in poverty, or in a destructive lifestyle to experience the Crab Effect. Just merely having a dream or a desire can result in people expressing scorn and derision and proclaiming how that plan will never work.

Years ago when I announced my plans to become a minister, the crabs came out. I didn’t come from the right background, I wasn’t suited for that life, I would never be able to complete the educational requirements, I didn’t have people skills, I could never make a decent living at it, I couldn’t speak well publicly, I had a twangy hillbilly accent — I heard it all.

Even last year when I took a motorcycle course and, for the first time in my life, planned to buy a motorcycle, here came the crabs. “Are you having a mid-life crisis? In your second childhood are you? Aren’t you a little too old for this?” And on it went.

Author Laurie Hayes gives several reasons why people try to prevent others from leaving the box. She says, “The Crab Effect usually occurs because others are not willing to expand their boundaries of thinking. They won’t accept that they have a choice or the ability to create what they truly want. You creating change for yourself may prove that their thinking is not sound and no one wants to be proven wrong. The ego does not like to be challenged. The Crab Effect also occurs because some people are afraid of change or may not have sufficient confidence in themselves, and by you embracing change and creating a more desirable future for yourself, their self-limiting beliefs may be reinforced.”

Finally, Hayes says, “Some people are afraid of being left behind and don’t want to be left alone. Like they say, ‘Misery loves company.’”

Ultimately, no one can keep you in the box except you. It’s hard to succeed without people trying to pull you down but it can be done.

If you’re happy being confined to the box, then great.

However, if you are a dreamer, a visionary … or if you simply want a better life, then the effort, the struggle, the sacrifice will be worth it all.

For the successful crab, the reward was the open sea and boundless adventure. For those who were content to stay behind — well, let’s just say they wound up in hot water.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. ( He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese ( and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Fellowship in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at]