Ask the Psychologist Issue #6: Reasons People Join Gangs that Inflict Human Suffering
I have been asked many times, why do people join hurtful gangs that inflict human suffering ?
This question is even more relevant now that we are watching riots on TV, in many parts of the our country, where hurtful behavior is being demonstrated, by what can be called gangs; one that is mentioned often is ANTIFA (-which is described partially by Wikipedia as “ .. individuals involved in the movement tend to hold anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist views, subscribing to a range of left-wing ideologies such as anarchism, communism, Marxism, social democracy and socialism….…
—Both the name antifa and the logo with two flags representing anarchism and communism are derived from the German Antifa movement.…”). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antifa_(United_States)
I’m sure there are many others gangs out there that look for opportunities to take advantage of peaceful demonstrators (Ask The Psychologist Issue 5 discusses the differences between Peaceful Demonstrations – first amendment right and Rioting – which is illegal behavior).
As mentioned in Ask The Psychologist series #3 (Subject was Paranoia) and Chapter 7 in my book, “Invisible Scars,” all human beings have the same human needs they continually attempt to meet on a daily basis. There are the Higher Human Psychological Needs I.E, 1. Love and Belonging (Family and friends) 2. Self Worth and Achievement (work, school, etc.), 3. Freedom (Do and go where you want, liberty) and 4. Fun ( Learning new information, general pleasures, etc.). The lower Basic Human Needs are food, clothing and shelter. If a person, can meet these basic and higher needs each day in a healthy manner, then that person becomes a productive member of the society they live in.
But what happens if a person doesn’t meet these needs in a healthy manner, as generally mentioned above. That person will experience psychological pain and will be driven to meet these needs, in a manner that can be unhealthy and destructive to that person and those around them. The point is that these basic and higher psychological needs will and must be met, regardless what choices are made (Choice Theory Psychology).
In the past, people usually learned how to meet their psychological needs, while growing up, from the people that surrounded them, whether it be families, relatives, friends, teachers, etc. Presently the media is another source that a person is exposed to that influences need fulfilling choices. The problem with information from the media is that it is inconsistent and not reliably truthful. In my past psychology classes, I was told that if you want to make a person schizophrenic, always be inconsistent and change the way you treat them, without letting them know what is coming next. This is our current media, one day they are saying something is true, the next day it gets changed to being false. It’s difficult to determine on a regular basis what is true.
The people in families we utilized for truth and role models in the past has changed drastically in the past 50 years. Families are not as intact as they once were. In 2014-18, the share of families headed by single parents was 75% among African American families, 58% among Hispanic families, 37% among white families and 21% among Asian families. One can see how difficult it is in 2020 to learn how to successfully meet our needs in a reasonable manner. That is why so many people have difficulty choosing healthy behaviors to meet their needs, that they are driven to meet in one way or another.
This brings us to how people meet their needs in destructive gangs. The need for belonging is fulfilled by other gang members, since the person becomes an integrated part of a group with a common philosophy.
The need for achievement and power is met when they cause destruction to property or people. In primitive societies, killing or imprisoning/dominating a person was and still is one of the most intensive ways of meeting the need for sick, unhealthy power (Taking everything a person values, including their life). Therefore, the people who riot and hurt and kill people and cause multiple damage, by burning others possessions, are meeting their need for power to the extreme. There are people who pay gangs to do their bidding, as well as the money gangs extort from people, all enhancing their power need.
In contrast, a healthy person meets their achievement or power need most intensively by talking to groups of people and having them listen, via performers, politicians, teachers, etc..
The need for freedom is met by a gang member, in unlawful activities that law abiding citizens can’t and won’t perform. If a gang member does’t experience natural consequences of being arrested for unlawful activities, they will be free to continue their unlawful behavior. This is a very powerful way of meeting their intrinsic need for freedom which lacks boundaries.
As sick as it sounds, a gang member has their need for fun met intensively by adrenaline producing destructive behavior as well as through, most often, brain altering illegal drugs.
Once a gang member meets their psychological needs as intensively as they did as a gang member, it is very difficult to rehabilitate them to meet their needs in a healthy manner.
Bart P. Billings,Ph.D.
COL SCNG-SC, Military Medical Directorate (Ret.)
Licensed Clinical Psychologist CA PSY 7656
Licensed Marriage, Family Therapist CA LMFT 4888
—Director/Founder International Military & Civilian Combat Stress Conference
—Initial Enlisted Ranks and Retired as Medical Service Corps Officer with a total of 34 years in US Army
—Recipient of the 2014 Human Rights Award from Citizens Commission on Human Rights International & The University Of Scranton “Frank O’Hara Award” in 2016.
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