The Economics of Gang Colors

Josh Wright —  3 August 2011

Here.  The article highlights an a paper stressing the role of gang colors as a commitment device to ensure higher quality criminals.  The mechanism works, the authors contend, because gang colors are a handicap that increases the probability of detection and thus, low quality criminals are less likely to be able to “afford” wearing them.  Here’s the WSJ description:

Like certain ostentatious displays by males in the animal kingdom, gang colors serve as a handicap, Mell argues: Yes, they make it more likely that the person wearing them will be caught. Yet they semaphore the following message: If 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.

Or from the paper:

In our model this brazen behavior is a solution to an enforcement problem. The central idea is that less able criminals see lower gains from continued participation in crime because they will be caught and punished more often. Lower future gains imply that reputational concerns will be less effective at enforcing honesty. Only dealing with brazen criminals will become a good way to avoid dealing with incompetent criminals, because they cannot afford to mimic the brazen behavior. The principle is similar to the selection for a handicap in evolutionary biology.

Interesting stuff.  The authors more general research question involves actions that appear to increase the probability of detection for criminals.  With respect to the specific example of gang colors, my initial reaction is that I’m skeptical that this mechanism is the dominant explanation for gang colors given their widespread use among teenagers and others who are unlikely to be highly skilled criminals and other open and notorious displays gang members take to reduce the probability of detection (e.g., wearing masks to prevent identification, use of “community” guns that reduce police ability to attribute ownership to any individual member of the gang, etc.).  Instead, I suspect that open display of gang membership, e.g. through signaling membership, is a combination of signaling status and a commitment to bear the costs of actions taken by the rest of the gang which weeds out the non-loyal by forcing prospective members to get some “skin the game.”

One response to The Economics of Gang Colors


    the paper is based on the false assumption that gangsters don’t want to be caught. Gangsters don’t plan on succeeding, they plan on failing

    the reality is that gangsters expect and want to be caught. the purpose of colors are for self-protection, to assure identification, and to add to the adrenalin thrill of a crime spree.

    beyond that the study has obvious flaws–it doesn’t consider why gangsters have horrible beating rituals to become a new member.

    in sum, gangsters are about the psychology of people, not economics