How The Human Need For Belonging Relates To Gang Membership

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), gangs are “groups of children, adolescents, and/or young adults that has a common identity and are involved in wrongful or delinquent activities.” The psychology of gang membership has been quite well-studied. There are several risk factors that can make young people more likely to join a gang, but one of the core motivations may be related to a lack of a sense of belonging.

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How gang membership can be harmful

The National Gang Intelligence Center reports that 48% of violent crime in most jurisdictions is attributed to gangs, and that this figure is as high as 90% in some areas. Gang activity is generally a danger for community members, even for those who are not involved or affiliated. However, gang membership itself can also be very dangerous. A 2014 study shows that youth involved in gangs are at risk of experiencing “physical violence, incarceration, substance abuse, and unemployment.” It is also one of the strongest predictors of antisocial behavior, which has been shown to have links to negative outcomes later in life, such as cardiovascular and psychological illness, self-injury, heavy regular drinking, and low job status. With such serious risks involved, why would a young person join a gang?

Key motivators for gang membership

The AACAP also said that there are many factors that may put a young person at higher risk of getting involved in a gang. These might include:

  • Low self-esteem

  • Feeling hopeless about the future due to a lack of educational and/or financial opportunities

  • Significant unstructured free time outside of school hours

  • Minimal adult supervision

  • A family history of gang involvement or affiliation

  • A childhood and/or adolescence in an area with heavy gang activity

  • No positive role models, and exposure to media that glorifies gang violence

  • Underlying mental health disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression

  • Alcohol and/or drug use among peers

Other risk factors that frequently underpin many of those on this list is a lack of adequate social support and an unmet need for community and belonging. Since this is typically such a core component of why gangs exist at all, let’s take a closer look at it.

The fundamental human need for belonging

Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a theory of human motivation in 1943 that revolves around understanding basic human needs, and it’s still widely referred to today. Known as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, it puts physical needs like food and water at the base, with self-actualization at the top. In the middle is the need for belonging—to feel accepted, loved, and a part of something. Some aspects of the human experience that can contribute toward satisfying this need are typically friendships, romantic attachments, family, social or hobby groups, church groups, etc.

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Maslow linked the need to belong with the need to feel loved, which he defines as a yearning for a sense of friendship and belonging both in groups and one on one. He adds that individuals will "strive with great intensity to achieve this goal.” Joining a gang, by definition, means being part of a cohesive group with a common identity, which can fill that need for love and belonging—especially in young people.

Research has consistently demonstrated that gang-involved youth tend to lack close ties with their families, friends, and schools, so it’s easy to see how the allure of joining the close-knit environment of a gang can attract young people in this type of situation. In fact, one study found that young people who perceived fair treatment from teachers and other adults at school and those who felt a sense of belonging at school were more likely to avoid joining a gang. The same was true for those who lived in neighborhoods with the presence of adult support.  

Another study summed up its findings this way: Although there are many and the situations are diverse and varied, “The most important community risk factor [for gang membership] is growing up in neighborhoods in which the level of social integration (attachment) is low.”

Prevention

It can be important to remember that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs places the need for a sense of love and belonging just above the one for physical safety. While safety is a need we can all easily recognize and prioritize, belonging is one that often isn’t discussed or emphasized enough. Making sure all children and young people have safe, healthy ways to fulfill this need can be an important part of helping them avoid gang membership and other unhealthy or dangerous situations in their adolescence.

One academic paper cites the following as the most mentioned reasons why some people can avoid gang involvement: education, alternative activities, and social and community support.

Programs to promote all of these would all likely need to be emphasized and supported at both local and national levels in order to affect meaningful change for gang prevention. However, this is almost certainly not the only component of the solution. Systemic factors that lead to socioeconomic disparity often play an outsized role in outcomes like gang membership for young people. Other things that can possibly contribute to why someone might be drawn to gang involvement include:

  • Lower-quality education due to poor funding

  • Parents or family members who are incarcerated or have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet and therefore aren’t as available for supervision or bonding

  • Drug use and/or sale, perhaps due to lack of employment opportunities

  • A negative view of or lack of mental health resources 

Unfortunately, improving these elements may be easier said than done for many communities; because several of these risk factors can be tied to institutional oppression and inequity, change would likely have to be linked to shifts in public policy.

The impact of adequate mental health care for affected populations

Gang involvement can negatively impact both the participants and their families due to the reasons covered above. It can expose both to trauma and cause negative mental health effects that can be lasting, especially in the absence of mental health care. Therapy is one recommended treatment for people who are healing from these often-harmful experiences. There are also therapeutic treatment programs for at-risk youth to help decrease the likelihood that they may turn to gang involvement to fulfill their need for belonging, or because of other risk factors outlined here.

The difficulty of availing therapy for high-risk populations can be a significant barrier. Programs that are easily available in schools or those that offer financial assistance may be helpful in making treatment more widely available. Online counseling platforms are one avenue for easier reach to these services; without having to pay for overhead costs, many professionals who operate online can offer more affordable rates. Plus, online therapy can be availed from any place with an internet connection.

Online therapy may also help promote feelings of belonging and offer a source of outside support without compromising on quality, as research suggests that virtual treatment may be easier and more cost-effective than in-person treatments while still providing similar benefits. 

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Takeaway

It can be difficult for family members when teens and other youth join gangs or become interested in gang membership. Youth gang prevention measures can help educate loved ones about the risks of involvement with gangs and gang members, as well as juvenile justice consequences that may impact those who join a gang.

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