We have a joke about a foreigner that went to a wet market in zone 1 and saw a farmer selling live frogs in an open basket.

As we all know, frogs jump. Actually, they jump about quite a bit when in a confined space.

When the foreigner pointed that out and asked, "Aren't you worried these frogs will escape?" The farmer replied,

"No, sir. These are Mixcoan frogs, and if one looks like he is going to escape, well the rest pull him back in."

Another example could be seen in traffic.

Few drivers here use the directional signals when changing lanes. Why? Although covered ad nauseam on the Driver's test, it has become a "cultural" thing: basically people here do not like other people getting in front of them. It becomes a competition to see who can occupy that space first, and it turns into a Mario Andretti situation. Too often it ends when neither one can occupy the space and both drivers have actually missed their turn.

From halfway around the world, in Saudi Arabia, another example.

A local merc † once told me about an experience he had had in Jeddah. He was waiting for someone on the main concourse, and positioned himself nicely near one of the columns in order to to protect his gun hand. A Saudi (local security) decided he also wanted to occupy that advantageous spot, and walked right up to my friend and tried to do a "face-off". They were pretty much nose-to-nose, and neither one backed down.

The result was they both missed their arriving pick-ups.

"cutting off a nose to spite a face"

...is too broad.

So, is there an expression that means...

If I cannot win, then I will make it impossible for you to win?


Dog in a manger

was suggested: however that means something else.

Interpreted variously over the centuries, the metaphor is now used to speak of one who spitefully prevents others from having something for which one has no use.

My examples exclude "having something for which one has no use."

All the frogs want to escape. All the drivers want to get ahead. All couriers want to do their pick-up.

It is their overly-competitive attitude towards each other that prevents them from winning.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist May 9 at 2:07

10 Answers 10


"Crab mentality" or "crabs in a bucket" describes the frog analogy well, but the driver scenario seems different.

Crab mentality, also known as crab theory, is a way of thinking best described by the phrase "if I can't have it, neither can you". The metaphor is derived from a pattern of behavior noted in crabs when they are trapped in a bucket. While any one crab could easily escape, its efforts will be undermined by others, ensuring the group's collective demise.

The analogy in human behavior is claimed to be that members of a group will attempt to reduce the self-confidence of any member who achieves success beyond the others, out of envy, resentment, spite, conspiracy, or competitive feelings, to halt their progress.


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    Since we're talking about English usage here, it's worth pointing out that if you just said someone had a "crab mentality", I would have absolutely no idea what you were talking about. My first guess would probably be something to do with crabby, which means irritable. I'm from UK (Southern England, specifically) so maybe this phrase has more currency elsewhere? – IMSoP Mar 26 at 15:26
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    @IMSoP American here. I've never heard of "crab mentality", and I agree that my mind goes to someone being crabby. – Jacob Mar 26 at 18:03
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    +1 "Crabs in a bucket" is a good answer because the effect of the crab behavior is to prevent a well-situated crab from escaping the general doom. The malice factor is absent, however, unless we anthroporphize in the tradition of Aesop. A closer overall match to "crabs in a bucket" is the onion parable in The Brothers Karamazov, in which a wicked old woman whose only good deed in life was to offer a beggar an onion is given the chance to escape from hell by grasping an onion extended to her by an angel. But seeing her starting to rise out of the pit of hell, other tormented spirits... – Sven Yargs Mar 26 at 23:51
  • ... rush over, grabbing her legs in hopes that they, too, will be pulled out of hell. Seeing this, the old woman shrieks at them, "No! No! Let go! This is my onion! My onion!"—and immediately the onion breaks off its stem and she falls back into the pit. – Sven Yargs Mar 26 at 23:51

You could call it a scorched earth policy This is when you know you can't win in a situation, so you're going to just burn it all down to prevent your opponent from making any use of it. See also: salting the earth. Either way, you're ceding territory to the enemy, but in such a way that it is of little or no use to them. Obviously can be used in a metaphorical sense in addition to the literal meaning.

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    I don't think either of those phrases necessarily indicate mutual loss, you can employ a scorched earth strategy and still win. – DBS Mar 26 at 9:58
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    @DBS You still lost your ground (where ground doesn't have to be a physical location, but can also be your metaphorical standpoint). The end result is just that the other side doesn't gain anything from your loss. The question is whether your emotional gain from them losing outweighs your initial loss. – JFBM Mar 26 at 10:30

Edwin linked to a question about the expression "If I can't have it, no-one can", but I think this phrase is exactly what you're looking for: it literally means "If I can't win, I will make it impossible for someone else to win".

The wording can be changed to suit the situation, so for example the "Guatemalan frogs" might say "If I can't escape, no-one can".

This pattern of phrase is idiomatic in British English - I believe the same is true in North American English.


You are kingmaking or spoiling, and can be called a kingmaker or spoiler. This usage comes from game theory via historical analogy (cf. "Is kingmaking in multiplayer games a problem that can be fixed?"). Here is how Wikipedia defines the kingmaker scenario:

a kingmaker scenario in a game of three or more players,[sic] is an endgame situation where a player who is unable to win has the capacity to determine which player among others will. Said player is referred to as the kingmaker or spoiler. No longer playing for themselves, they may make game decisions to favor a player who played more favorably (to them) earlier in the game.

I've often encountered both terms during board games where an already-losing player intentionally hinders another player in order to enable a favored player's victory. For instance, if one player has been continually acted against during a game of Risk, in a situation where they can no longer win, they may instead act as the spoiler against that player, decimating their armies. I've also heard spoiling in situations where everyone would lose as a result of a player's deliberate actions, in situations where that is possible. (It can happen in some competitive games - see this list on BoardGameGeek.) The usage is a little quirky, but spoiler especially is attested in the OED in American English:

2.c. U.S. One who mars the chance of victory for an opponent, while not being a potential winner. Also, applied to a thing. Esp. in Sport and Politics.

A related usage also carries over to politics (the spoiler effect, e.g. Hiring and Firing Public Officials),

  • Yes...from the beginning I thought it might come from game theory. – Cascabel Mar 24 at 21:52
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    I don't think 'kingmaking' applies, because it refers to a situation where a player can win and so they decide which of their opponents will win. 'Spoiler' would be more fitting (maybe even 'a spoiler to everyone else' to underscore how they're not letting anyone win). – Irene Liberali Mar 25 at 8:16

Much of the game theory of the Cold War dealt with MAD or Mutual Assured Destruction, where the United States and Soviet Union went to great effort to demonstrate they would have the capability to destroy the other no matter what was targeted as a first strike, thus deterring a major war, and so denying both sides a "win".

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    I remember MAD. I also remember an uneasy "peace"... – Cascabel Mar 26 at 22:02

I would call

a competition to see who can occupy that space first. Usually it ends when neither one can occupy the space, and both drivers have actually missed their turn.

the Prisoner's Dilemma.

The Prisoner's Dilemma game is played like this:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The possible outcomes are:

If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison If A remains silent but B betrays A, A will serve three years in prison and B will be set free If A and B both remain silent, both of them will serve only one year in prison (on the lesser charge).


But, it can also be applied to your situation. Wikipedia states:

The prisoner's dilemma game can be used as a model for many real-world situations involving cooperative behavior. In casual usage, the label "prisoner's dilemma" may be applied to situations not strictly matching the formal criteria of the classic or iterative games: for instance, those in which two entities could gain important benefits from cooperating or suffer from the failure to do so, but find it difficult or expensive—not necessarily impossible—to coordinate their activities.

As a second source, Investopedia says this on the topic:

The prisoner's dilemma is a paradox in decision analysis in which two individuals acting in their own self-interests do not produce the optimal outcome. The typical prisoner's dilemma is set up in such a way that both parties choose to protect themselves at the expense of the other participant. As a result, both participants find themselves in a worse state than if they had cooperated with each other in the decision-making process. The prisoner's dilemma is one of the most well-known concepts in modern game theory.

And finally, MacMillian Dictionary defines the Prisoner's Dilemma as this:

an idea from game theory that two rational individuals may not cooperate even if it is in their best interests to do so

In your example, the drivers could both fall into order and make their turn, but they choose not to coordinate and it results in them both missing their turn.

If you are still interested in this game/idea/idiom, I would check out the below Standford article.

Standford.edu - Prisoner's Dilemma (a very philosophical and technical look at the prisoner's dilemma which is unrelated to your question- still interesting though)

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    @Cascabel Thanks. I have edited more sources and info into my answer if that helps. – Nai54 Mar 25 at 21:46
  • Hunhh...as I mentioned to @TaliesinMerlin below, I had thought game theory might have a play here. – Cascabel Mar 25 at 21:54
  • Would the downvoter explain the downvote please? – Nai54 Mar 26 at 14:36
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    I up-voted to remove the negative # – Cascabel Mar 26 at 20:04

"Poison Pill" comes to mind, it's used by businesses to have harm any other business that tries to hostilily take over that company, such as buying 50% of their shares on the stock market.

"Poisoning the well" and "Salt the earth" come to mind, both destroy the land, so that no one can live in a particular town. This was done in ancient times when people had to flee an invading army, they would poison the water supply. Salting the earth literally means to throw salt in the fields so that crops can never grow again.


The answer you may be looking for is that colourful American phrase the no-win scenario, also known as the lose-lose scenario, where neither side can achieve victory.

It isn't always used to imply that one side is intentionally depriving the other of victory, but that is one situation in which the expression is applicable.

It is stronger than a scorched earth policy, which does not deny the other victory but only denies him the fruits of victory. In its ultimate expression it is indeed mad (mutual assured destruction), but it applies equally to less apocalyptic situations.

The recently threatened vaccine war between Britain and the EU -- a topical example -- was reported in British newspapers as a lose-lose situation, in which the EU was bound to lose because Britain had the ability to cut off the supplies with which the EU was manufacturing the vaccines that it wanted to prevent being exported.


A common phrase is: "it's not enough to win, others must lose."

This has been attributed to Gore Vidal and Somerset Maugham (as well as Genghis Khan - no doubt on account of his fearsome reputation).

Personally, I think of it as a species of low wit. It's no basis on which to base a philosophy of life and nor a political culture on.


The word "gridlock" comes to mind. It refers to a situation in which no one can make progress because no one involved would compromise. We can say that someone is trapped in a gridlock situation or he is employing a gridlock strategy. If someones adopts a gridlock strategy, he makes sure that "if he can not win, no one else will win".

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