Applied Psychology OPUS

Gang Involvement as a Means to Satisfy Basic Needs

Laina Sonterblum

The United States Department of Justice (2015) defines gangs as organized groups of three or more people with a collective identity surrounding criminal activity. Gangs have dangerous effects on communities, with as many as 90% of violent crimes in U.S. cities attributed to gang involvement (National Gang Intelligence Center, 2011). In addition to causing danger to communities, gangs are problematic and dangerous for their members, especially youth members. Over one million gang members in the United States are under 18 years of age—a number that recent research suggests is growing (Pyrooz & Sweeten, 2015). Gang-involved youth are at risk of experiencing physical violence, incarceration, substance abuse, and unemployment (Gilman, Hill, & Hawkins, 2014). In order to reduce these negative effects on both communities and gang members, it is imperative to collect and synthesize empirical research on youth gang involvement. Specifically, while there is myriad research on correlates of youth gang involvement, there is a dearth in attempts to understand why these correlates may be related to or even predictive of gang involvement. As such, this review attempts to explain the relations between these correlates and gangs by utilizing Maslow’s (1943) Hierarchy of Needs as a theoretical framework.

Maslow’s (1943) theory comprises of two main points relevant to framing risk factors for gang involvement. First, he posits that all humans have a hierarchy of basic needs that must be met in order to reach positive outcomes. These needs include physiological, safety, love, and esteem. Second, he claims that the necessity to fulfill these basic needs drives nearly all motivation. Only after all of these basic needs are met can an individual begin to achieve self-actualization, or the drive to be the best that one can be (Maslow, 1943). If these basic needs are not met, an individual is motivated to fulfill them by any means necessary, regardless of consequences (Maslow, 1943). Therefore, individuals who do not have their basic needs met by their families and environments may seek out gang membership as a way to fulfill them. This paper will review literature on risk factors for gang involvement by using Maslow’s (1943) Hierarchy of Needs as a framework for understanding why such factors increase individuals’ risk of gang involvement.  Such a review is necessary to inform future research and policy decisions aimed at reducing youth gang membership and their impact on communities.

Physiological Needs

When one’s physiological needs are not met, individuals yearn to satisfy them however they can (Maslow, 1943). Poverty has been found to be a correlate of food insecurity and unstable housing, as well as gang involvement (Pyrooz & Sweeten, 2015; Tapia, 2011). Thus, while money itself may not be a physiological need, hunger and housing (e.g. shelter from dangerous elements and weather) are related to gang membership where food insecurity and unstable housing are predictive of involvement (Carlson, Andrews, & Bickel 1999; Voisin, King, Diclemente, & Carry, 2014). Maslow’s (1943) theory would suggest a causal relation between these variables in which individuals are using gangs as a source of income to meet their physiological needs of food and shelter. Because legal means of income may not be accessible to youth under the legal working age of 14 (U.S. Department of Labor, 1938), or simply unattractive due to the long hours and minimal pay, joining a gang may appeal to a youth in need of money. Gangs can provide income through criminal activity such as drug and weapons trafficking (U.S. Department of Justice, 2015). In addition to money, gangs can give members a feeling of protection by providing them with weapons and a sense of safety in numbers, or a sense that they have people who will fight with them if needed (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996). Such provisions may help youth to address their safety needs.

Safety Needs

Maslow (1943) explains that all individuals have a need to feel safe in their environment. Youth living in areas run by gangs and violence are at an increased risk of membership themselves (Li et al., 2002), which may be due to safety needs. In other words, youth exposed to violence may feel that their safety is at risk and that they do not have means to protect themselves nor a group of peers to fight beside them. Thus, they may look to gang membership to fill these needs. Studies suggest that for at-risk youth, this lack of safety exists across contexts, including their neighborhood (e.g., Farmer & Hairston, 2013; Merrin, Hong, & Espelage, 2015) and home (e.g., Wood, Furlong, Rosenblatt, & Robertson, 1997).

One recent study found that individuals living in neighborhoods where there was a significant gang presence had a greater likelihood of joining a gang (Alleyne & Wood, 2012; Hill et al., 1999). Alleyne and Wood (2012) suggest that learned behavior is the cause of this relation, where witnessing gang violence leads to engaging in violence. However, the Hierarchy of Needs (1943) illustrates this relation between neighborhood gangs and gang involvement as due to youth feeling unsafe in their environments, thus looking to meet their safety needs through gang membership.

The need to establish safety also exists in the home, as approximately 71% of gang members have experienced family violence (Wood et al., 1997). Wood and colleagues (1997) found that numerous gang members had experienced sexual (22%) or physical (42%) abuse, often at the hands of their caregivers. Moreover, histories of trauma are predictive of gang involvement in girls (Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999; Voisen et al., 2014). Survivors of trauma may look to gangs with the hope of finding protection against another traumatic experience occurring. In addition to providing individuals with a sense of safety, belonging to a gang and the assumed camaraderie that comes with it can also be attractive to those looking to fill their love needs.

Love Needs

Maslow (1943) defines the love needs as a yearning for a sense of belonging and friendship in both groups and one-on-one; both romantically and platonically. 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 (U. S. Department of Justice, 2015; Vigil & Long, 1990). Thus, gang involvement is an attractive means of fulfilling the love needs as it allows the youth to have a sense of belonging to a group. Research shows that many 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)

Within families, for instance, a lack of parental support is directly related to gang membership (Lenzi et al., 2015; Li et al., 2002). Specifically, Pyrooz and Sweeten (2015) found that numerous gang-involved youth come from single-parent households, with the mother often being the sole caretaker. This correlation may exist because the single parent is the family’s only source of income and may have less time to spend with the child. Additionally, low family involvement, poor communication, and low parental monitoring are all found to be risk factors of gang involvement (Li et al., 2002; Voisen, et al., 2014). Voisen et al. (2014) explains that these factors are indicative of a family relationship in which an individual does not feel a sense of love and belonging, and thus the youth may seek other ways to satisfy the need for familial connections, such as with peers.

If a youth can find love or belonging among peers in school, he or she will be less likely to be involved in a gang (Merrin, Hong, & Espelage, 2015). Research also demonstrates that having a poor attachment to school academically (e.g., showing disinterest, low grades, truancy) is predictive of gang involvement (Hill et al., 1999). When youth have low attachment to school and poor relationships at home, they may turn to peers for support. While research shows that peer support can be protective against gang involvement (McDaniel, 2012), associating with delinquent and/or gang involved peers can increase his or her risk of membership (Bell, 2009; Bjerregaard & Cochran, 2012; Esbensen & Carsen, 2009; Hill et al., 1999; Lenzi et al., 2015; Voisen et al., 2014). Conversely, peer rejection also increases risk for gang involvement (Farmer & Hairston, 2013). These relationships between peers and gang involvement can be explained by Maslow’s (1943) theory in two ways. First, as mentioned above, this rejection may negatively influence an individual’s sense of belonging and make them feel unloved. Second, such rejection might impact one’s esteem, which is another important need in Maslow’s (1943) theory.

Esteem Needs

Maslow (1943) defines esteem needs as including both self-esteem and the perception of being held in high esteem by others. These two forms of esteem are actually reciprocal, as evidence suggests that our perceptions of ourselves are directly related to how we think others see us (Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995). Peer rejection, for example, occurs when one is held in low esteem by others, which would then negatively affect one’s self-esteem. Low-self esteem has been found to predict gang membership in numerous studies (e.g., Dmitrieva, Gibson, Steinbert, Piquero, & Fagan, 2014; Farmer & Hairston, 2013; Voisen et al., 2014), likely due in part to factors such as the aforementioned peer rejection and poor school outcomes (Hill et al., 1999; Merrin, Hong, & Espelage, 2015). Regardless of the reason for this trend, youth with greater esteem needs will search to increase both their self-esteem and the esteem others hold of them. If one’s esteem needs are not met, they are left feeling discouraged and may do nearly anything to prove their worthiness and gain respect. Gangs provide an attractive means to gratify this need. Gangs often carry “street cred,” or a reputation of power and prestige in a given neighborhood (Brantingham, Tita, Short, & Reid, 2012). Joining a gang with a high level of street cred, therefore, can increase one’s esteem by association. Furthermore, gangs give individuals a sense of power, which can be attractive to individuals who may feel they have been marginalized in other aspects of their lives (Capozzoli & McVey, 2000). In sum, becoming involved in a gang can boost one’s esteem by providing them with a sense of empowerment.


Youth gang involvement is increasing dramatically in the United States (Pyrooz & Sweeten, 2015). This paper synthesizes the existing research on risk factors of gang involvement using Maslow’s (1943) Hierarchy of Needs as a theoretical framework. When viewed through this hierarchy, individuals are at an increased risk for joining a gang when their basic needs are not met. For instance, physiological needs such as hunger can be met through the drug-dealing aspect of gang membership by providing that individual with money from sales. Safety needs can be met through the camaraderie a gang offers, which provides protection against dangerous neighborhoods and rival gangs. This same camaraderie addresses the love need by providing an individual who may be cast out by family and peers with a sense of belonging. Finally, gangs can address the esteem need by increasing one’s prestige and reputation through association with the gang.

Based on the research presented in this review and the Hierarchy of Needs theory, the author developed an answer to the research question in which unmet needs lead to both desperation to meet these needs and the inability to self actualize, both of which then lead to gang involvement. When one’s primary four basic needs are not met, that individual is unable to self-actualize and therefore does not try to reach his or her full potential (Maslow, 1943). Additionally, he or she will experience an intense sense of urgency to satiate the basic four needs however he or she can. The combination of this urgency to meet needs and the inability to self-actualize then leads to an increased risk of gang-involvement.


Much of the existing literature analyzes correlations between variables and youth already in gangs, rather than longitudinal studies of those exhibiting risk factors and evaluating if the participants join gangs at a later time-point. Having such research would allow more predictive inferences: researchers would be able to conclude that one variable leads to gang involvement in contrast to declaring that these two variables are related with no evidence of directionality. Having directionality would strengthen the argument that reducing risk factors may truly have an impact on a reduction of gang involvement.

A second limitation is that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs posits  that one’s needs must be met in order from bottom to top, yet no research currently suggests the existence of this order in this context: that an individual’s desire to feed themselves is any more of a motivator to join a gang than fulfilling a sense of belonging.  Finally, because this model focuses on needs related primarily to external factors, individual differences may influence the relation between the reviewed risk factors and becoming involved in a gang, as not all individuals with these risk factors become involved in gangs. In other words, a perfect causal relation cannot be assumed between the environmental risk factors reviewed and gang involvement.


Framing the correlates of youth gang membership around Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has clear implications for theory, research, policy, and practice. The model supports Maslow’s theory to an extent, but brings into question whether the suggested hierarchy has the same (or any) order in this context. For instance, there is no evidence that a youth is yearning to meet his or her safety needs before his or her esteem needs. Future research should explore if gang-involved youth rank the reasons they joined a gang in the order that Maslow surmised. Because there is nothing to suggest one level of the hierarchy is more important than another in this context, policy and practice initiatives should target needs at each level of the hierarchy and find ways to meet individual’s needs through means other than gangs. If the directionality of Maslow’s Hierarchy is correct, policies should aim to impact from the ground up, starting with physiological needs. 

Addressing poverty through both legislation (e.g., tax reforms) and micro-level initiatives (e.g., donations to local food banks and shelters) could go a long way in improving the lives of impoverished youth and decreasing their risk of gang membership. Following this, safety needs can be addressed through initiatives such as better community policing. Community policing refers to when police have more positive relationships with the communities in which they serve so that their presence is not feared and people are more willing to call them following a crime (Bureau of Justice Assistance, 1994). Additionally, greater focus on treatment for those who have experienced trauma and abuse may provide survivors with alternative ways to cope and feel protected rather than join a gang. 

Third, belonging needs could be addressed through a policy change that would increase funds for school programs in order to increase school engagement, both during and after school hours. Such programs could increase one’s feeling of belonging in school and diminish their need to find relationships in gangs. Further, instituting more group- and family-centered interventions for at-risk youth where positive bonds can be formed in safe, structured environments could help to fulfill the love needs in healthier ways. One component of such therapies could be the use of positive reinforcement (Premack, 1959), which can also serve to address Maslow’s fourth need, self-esteem. As such, viewing unmet needs of at-risk youth as predictors of gang membership has important implications for reducing youth gang involvement. Such reductions could lead to minimization of in youth arrests, substance use, and unemployment, as well as vast reduction of violent crimes in cities across the United States. 


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