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Gang members…a evolutionary kaleidoscope


Why in the world do gang members advertise their presence by prominently displaying ‘colors’, handsigns or tattoos?

Red? Really? It's really only acceptable between May Day and Labor Day...

If you think about it, this display doesn’t seem to make much sense. After all, this is the equivalent of hiring a guy with a sign that says ‘This guy’s going to commit criminal activity’ with an arrow pointing at you who follows you around all day with a small mariachi band (if they can be pried away from serenading local cetaceans). The point being, if you’ve decided to embark upon a life of crime it seems the last thing you’d want to do is draw attention to yourself but gang displays like this are quite clearly designed to do just that.

So, what’s the deal?

Well, I’m glad you asked. First, I’d like to point out that the paragraph above contained at least one cognitive bias. It assumes that all criminals would conduct their activity as I would. As someone with my values, priorities and (de)motivators. So, my priorities might look something like this:

  • avoid capture/arrest
  • maximize profit
  • conceal my criminal activity from all but the bare minimum of people who are required to facilitate it

To assume everyone else would have those same priorities would be to commit the sin of ‘mirror imaging‘. From St. Heuer:

One kind of assumption an analyst should always recognize and question is mirror-imaging–filling gaps in the analyst’s own knowledge by assuming that the other side is likely to act in a certain way because that is how the US would act under similar circumstances. To say, “if I were a Russian intelligence officer …” or “if I were running the Indian Government …” is mirror-imaging.

So, let’s kick that ‘Well, if I were a criminal, I’d…” practice to the curb. While Heuer spoke about other nations we need to be aware that even within the U.S. we have different cultures (or, perhaps, sub-cultures). Even if we and the members of a criminal organization both were born and raised in the same country, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have the same cultural experience and values. Many of us experienced life in suburban, middle-class America. That can be very, very different from the experiences of populations that are socially excluded because of their immigrant, economic, racial or social status. So, mirror imaging is just as fraught with danger for law enforcement analysts as it is for those analyzing international issues.

Now, let’s take a slight detour and discuss frogs and bats (trust me, this will all connect).

The August 5th edition of the Science podcast had a story about about the mating signals of bats and frogs. The conventional wisdom is that elaborate mating displays (long peacock feathers, frog or bat calls) are limited by predators. At some point the mating display becomes so elaborate that it is the evolutionary equivalent of hiring a guy with a sign that says ‘This guy’s looking to get some’ with an arrow pointing at you who follows you around all day with a small mariachi band.

The only problem with conventional wisdom (at least in this case) is that it appears to be wrong. What really seems to limit the display of these animals is the cognitive abilities of the females (misogynistic joke censored here). At some point the ladies get overwhelmed with the frog and bat equivalent of bell bottoms, big collars and all that Hai Karate.

So, what does this have to do with gangs? Well, perhaps gang displays aren’t really limited by law enforcement pressures. Maybe there’s another (or other) factors that influence how extensive gang displays are.

The Wall Street Journal has an article about a recent study (full study available here) into just that. Andrew Mell argues that ‘peacocking’ by gang members sends a signal to ‘potential mates’ (drug customers) that basically says:

…I’m still willing to commit crimes when I have this handicap, I must be pretty good at evading the police. Incompetent criminals couldn’t get away with wearing gang colors.

He also theorizes other messages gang members might send through other sorts of behavior.

A competent criminal might decide to sell drugs near a school, precisely because penalties are higher there. Who would dare do that? Only someone awfully confident in his or her shrewdness.

I got to thinking about this and the theory also fits in another way. Gang members aren’t only worried about attracting customers. It’s a big, bad world out there and gang members often cite protection as a reason for membership. Flashy displays of membership broadcast to potential rivals that they might be biting off more than they can chew if they want to pick on particular gang member. If you are a criminal network and want to control a particularly lucrative drug territory you probably won’t think twice about an aggressive strategy if there’s one lone person running things. But, if taking action might start a gang war with another large group you might look for other territory.

This may explain why findings like those in the NJ Gang Surveys have identified a growing allegiance to ‘super gangs’ (particularly the Bloods) and the decline of small, neighborhood gangs. The former at least provide the promise of a much larger pool of potential allies thereby raising the bar for who might comfortably confront them.

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