Have you heard of how when crabs are left in a bucket, and one tries to climb out, the other crabs will actually pull the escaping crab down into the bottom of the bucket again!
A comment left on my blog last month had me looking into ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’. This is basically where people of higher status are resented, looked down upon, or attacked by their peers – like the crabs pulling the escaping one down the bucket.
The psychology behind this is that the amount of prestige in any given social group is limited, and for one member to rise in prestige in the group means prestige has to fall from someone else.
Let’s take the example of a company:
there are many bottom line workers, fewer middle-class managers, and even fewer executives. Only a small number of the total workers are able to climb up the corporate ladder. If there are 5 people in my department, and one management position, that means only one of us can get promoted. Most people understand this, and those who wish to rise to management must compete with their peers for that coveted position. If you get it, I don’t. If I get it, you don’t.
Same with sports competitions, there are 30 (now 31) teams in the NHL, and each one team can win the Stanley cup. 29 teams will not win the Stanley cup – for that year, they will all be inferior to the winner.
That’s not too hard to rationalize because in both situations, all parties acknowledge and recognize the change in prestige.
But what about our relationships? Those are a lot more of a grey area than objective competitions.
Think back to the movie Mean Girls, where Regina George was the queen bee of the four ladies. When Cady Heron wanted to take over the role of ‘queen bee’, she had to lower Regina’s prestige so her own would rise.
People like to befriend peers who are very similar to them – studies have shown that people are friendlier towards people who are of similar heights, of similar attractiveness, and are in the same socioeconomic class as themselves. According to the above theory, I don’t want to be friends with someone with a perceived higher value than myself. Similarly, if someone believes I have a higher value than them, they don’t want to befriend me either. So we all find people similar to ourselves who are neither ‘threats’ to our perceived prestige or who are threatened by us.
But the problem arises when a member’s prestige ranking CHANGES. Suddenly the group dynamics have shifted and that’s when tall poppy syndrome will cause problems.
For instance, let’s take the example of a popular K-pop group called Miss A. When the group first formed, there were 4 members and they all had something they were good at. Min was the sexy one. Fei was the pretty, elegant one. Jia was the cool one, and Suzy, the youngest was the cutest one. They all had their own fans and released many hit songs together.
Then as the years went on, Suzy became a huge star through her acting. The name Suzy became a household term everywhere in Korea, she became the brand ambassador for many make-up brands and signed on to more commercial deals than any other female in the industry. She outshone her group members so much – the public only wanted to see her, and not have her only show up ¼ of the time as part of a girl group.
However, Miss A’s original fans wanted to see the whole group together. As Suzy racked up her individual activities, she overshadowed her peers more and more and the group became fractured. The other 3 members would hang out by themselves, and they didn’t follow Suzy on Instagram. Eventually Miss A broke up.
This isn’t something new to Kpop groups, there have been others where one member outshone the rest leading to a division in the group. (4minute, Destiny’s Child, No Doubt, etc)
According to this theory, we as people do not want to see our friends succeed much more than us. If our friend gets a promotion, that’s something we can celebrate, but if they suddenly undergo the knife to resemble a svelte model + their app takes off and gets acquired for 7 figures + pens a best selling book – that’s probably enough for the tall poppy syndrome to occur. Or, another guess is that this uber successful friend will have more in common with other millionaire author models than her previous peers.
I’m not sure if there’s any ‘fix’ for this syndrome, but I found it fascinating that there was a psychological theory that explains all the ‘bitches be jealous’ memes I see on Instagram.
Have you ever experienced the tall poppy syndrome? Or have you done it to someone else without realizing?