Understanding The Motivation: Why Do People Join Gangs

By Sarah Fader |Updated April 5, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Tanya Harell, LPC

The Need to Belong

Abraham Maslow developed a theory of human motivation that revolves around understanding basic human needs. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs explains human needs in a hierarchy with physiological needs such as food and water at the bottom of the hierarchy and self actualization at the top of the hierarchy. In the middle of the Hierarchy of Needs is the need to belong. The need to belong revolves around the need to feel accepted and loved. Some of the aspects of the human experience that seem to satisfy the human need to belong are friendships, romantic attachments, family, social groups, church groups and community groups.

Brene Brown, in her book Braving the Wilderness, explains that true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world and that our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. Belonging is an important part of living a full life and it contributes to feelings of self-worth and acceptance. The need to belong is essential to the human experience and the need will be fulfilled through other avenues if not fulfilled through the family of origin. Individuals who do not have their basic need to belong met by their families and environments may seek out gang membership as a way to fulfill them.

The Need to Feel Loved

Abraham Maslow (1943) coupled the need to belong with the need to feel loved. The need to feel loved, according to Maslow (1943), is a yearning for a sense of friendship and belonging in groups and one-on-one. He adds that individuals will "strive with great intensity to achieve this goal" (p. 381). Joining a gang, by definition, means being part of cohesive group with a shared identity. This leads to feelings of love and belonging. Gang involvement becomes attractive to filling the love needs as it allows young people to achieve a sense of belonging to a group that may be lacking. Research consistently demonstrates that much gang-involved youth lack close ties with their families, friends, and schools (e.g., Li et al., 2002; Merrin, Hong, & Espelage, 2015; Pyrooz & Sweeten 2015). This lack of belonging and lack of feeling loved leads to young people to seek this through gang affiliation.

The need to belong is never more present than during late childhood and adolescence.

Children Face Stress When Seeking to Belong

The need to belong is present in the lives of so many children and adolescents. Adolescents may feel alienated from their peers. Children and adolescents may have trouble making friends due to social awkwardness or other issues associated with social situations. In addition, in some cities or neighborhoods, children may face immense peer pressure to join particular groups or gang. The pressure to fit in or gain protection from bullies or other groups. Children and young teens are often tasked with filling large amounts of free time, and finding connections with those in organized groups can be a way to fill this excess.

There are particular risk factors that increase an individual's susceptibility to gangs. A lack of parental supervision, children and adolescents who are exposed to poverty, and those who may experience early academic failure or lack of healthy social attachment. There are a number of reasons associated with an individual's decision to join a gang. Adolescents and children are subjected to recruitment efforts that may be clandestine. Parents play an important role in helping their children feel connected to their families and others. As a parent, it's important to take the steps to prevent a child or adolescent from slipping into bad company.

Human Needs & Gangs

Belonging is an essential need in the human experience. Gangs are often considered problematic and dangerous, especially for the youth members. Social connections are important in developing and maintaining a healthy, well-adjusted emotional life, especially in our early years. Some are drawn towards involvement due to the risk, and the excitement that comes with risk-taking behaviors. Participation in criminal gangs often leads to an extended lifestyle of anti-social behavior or criminal activity. While some people rehabilitate and pursue normal and productive lives, many get stuck in the mindset that comes with the culture of the gang with which they are associated. Violence is often a means to an end in most gang affiliations.

There have been some movements to help establish "gangs" based on positive social interactions, helping to fulfill the need for community and connection in those that seek it out. In an effort to address the belongingness needs encountered by many who join gangs, programs in schools have been established that increase school engagement. Clubs and organizations that are inclusive and address the need to belong could increase feelings of belonging school and diminish the need to find relationships and social connections in gangs. Family centered programs for youth in which positive bonds are formed could fulfill the need for love.

People Join Gangs Because….

Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs explicitly describes love and belonging as a basic human need. If those needs are met through the family or through school engagement or through engagement with loving and creative clubs and organizations, then gang involvement is not present. Understanding the pressure that children feel to conform to their peers and their need for a sense of belonging can help parents and caregivers intervene to prevent gang involvement.

The Hierarchy as proposed by Maslow indicates that individuals may be at an increased risk for joinging gangs when their basic needs are not met. Gangs, if the needs are not met, will meet them. Gangs create a sense of camaraderie which can provide a sense of safety for some at risk youth. Some children and adolescents who have been cast out of their families of origin or those who are runaways need to belong somewhere and gangs provide that sense of love and belonging.

Although poverty and single parent families increase the risk for gang involvement among youth, there are preventative actions that can be incorporated in the lives of children. Some parents must work long hours and may not always be able to supervise their children, but establishing routines and family traditions and quality family time can increase the sense of belonging. Certain habits and values can provide avenues of communication with a child or adolescent and parents are directly tied to their children through communication. It's an established pattern that if a parent or family member is in a gang, it often leads the child to joining the same, as they are exposed to the social ties to (of) the gang at home.

BetterHelp is an online resource aimed at providing accessible and affordable access to mental health care or counseling. Speaking with a therapist can be a good way to better understand your situation while working to introduce healthier habits.

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