As Pat strolled across Hornbake Mall, Terry stepped up and started talking about a new philosophy ...


This site is to be used as a guide to alert students, staff, faculty and family members to the existence and characteristics of dangerous groups. It is our hope that this will help members of the university community equip themselves with questions to ask before joining a new group.

What is a Dangerous Group?

What is a Dangerous Group?

A dangerous group is a group with a hidden agenda of power which is achieved by deceptive recruitment and control over the minds and lives of its members.

One of the great difficulties in dealing with abusive, intrusive and inappropriate groups on campus is that there is no consistent and agreed-upon definition for what constitutes a “destructive group.” The behaviors that, particularly in combination, make an organization or group destructive group-like, however, would probably include:

  • Deception (including pretensions of friendship in the recruitment of new members)
  • Efforts to remove members from individuals and activities outside the group
  • The use of ridicule or embarrassment to motivate or control members
  • A demand for slavish, unquestioning obedience to the group and its leadership
  • Extraordinary pressure to recruit new members, sometimes even in pyramid fashion
  • Extraordinary demands for members’ contributions -- in money and time -- in support of the group
  • The channeling of funds raised to undisclosed parent organizations


During their lives, students may be urged to join all kinds of organizations. The great majority of these organizations are well-meaning and constructive, whether they are political, social, service, religious or philosophical in nature; however, there are groups that have appeared in our society and on campuses whose purposes and techniques are opposed to giving their members free, informed and intelligent choices about what to do with their lives.

A dangerous group is a group with a hidden agenda of power which is achieved by deceptive recruitment and control over the minds and lives of its members.

Their members may approach us in an unexpectedly friendly way, and may seem to take a special personal interest in us. They may invite us to meetings where their focus on us and our philosophical beliefs become more intense. This intense personal interest may be gradually combined with increasing demands on our time and attention, to such an extent that we may be inclined to drop out of school, abandon friends and family, and virtually change our personality and identity. This deceitfulness by such a group and its control over our minds and lives is the motivation for the definition of a dangerous group.

Notice that the definition says nothing about the beliefs of a group. A group is regarded as “dangerous” if it hides its identity or beliefs from new recruits, and if it manipulates its members’ minds and lives in a deceitful manner. The techniques of mind-control used by such groups are extremely sophisticated and have become very well developed since the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The most famous such group was the People’s Temple, whose leader Jim Jones ultimately commanded the mass murder and suicide of over 900 members in 1978. Yet it is estimated that thousands of dangerous groups with several million members exist today. Moreover, it is estimated that at least one out of every ten families in the United States has been affected by a dangerous group.

Some people claim that occasionally a dangerous group has been helpful to certain individuals--especially those under great stress, for whom a “new family” or a strict regime involving unthinking allegiance to the leaders could bring desirable changes in their lives. But whether or not a group is harmful to an individual, that individual has the right to make his or her own informed and free choices.

How do they recruit?

Dangerous groups employ intentional strategies which bring about the increasing involvement of individuals. These tactics are progressive, incremental, and they usually employ peers.

Many of the recruits to dangerous groups are between the ages of 18 and 24. These groups are well aware that the college years involve testing, exploration, questioning of personal beliefs and values, and distance from families and home support systems. Group recruiters target colleges and universities, particularly during times of high student stress, such as periods preceding exams and holidays, as well as earlier in the school year.

Recruitment efforts often have an innocuous beginning which may come in the form of a conversation about philosophy, religion or politics, or an invitation to attend a social function, a meeting, or a discussion group. The strategies are progressive however, and employ intentional rewards (e.g, acceptance and appreciation), lots of peer attention, and increasing isolation.

Experts on dangerous groups speculate that all of us are to some degree vulnerable to such recruitment strategies. Most college students who become involved in dangerous groups are comparatively normal and healthy, and have the same problems and conflicts as their peers.


Foot-in-the-door Technique

In order to ask ourselves how we might be vulnerable to such strategies, it is helpful to examine a classic sales technique which characterizes the initial component of a recruitment strategy; this is the “foot in the door.”

When was the last time you engaged in any of the following:

  • used a free sample of a product?
  • took a car on a test drive?
  • entered a shop or store in response to a sale sign or advertisement?
  • completed a questionnaire or survey distributed by a vendor?
  • agreed to view a brief sales presentation in order to collect a free prize?


The expression “foot in the door” comes from the days when door-to-door salesmen hawked their wares on the doorstep. Each salesman knew that if he could just get through the door with his pitch, that the client was that much more likely to make a purchase.

The foot-in-the-door technique succeeds due to a basic human reality that social scientists call “successive approximations”. Basically, the more a subject goes along with small requests or commitments, the more likely that subject is to continue in a desired direction of attitude or behavioral change and feel obligated to go along with larger requests.

All of the above practices are based on the “foot in the door” technique, and all of them increase the probability that you will eventually make the desired purchase. Some strategies employ combinations of the items listed above or others not listed here, and only the most resilient individual can withstand the resulting pressure.

The dangerous group member who engages you in a casual conversation concerning philosophy or religion, who requests that you complete and discuss a survey on such topics, or invites you to a group meeting employs the same foot-in-the-door technique.


Progressive Stages of Recruitment

How does a dangerous group gain control over an individual’s life? It does not happen all at once. The process involves a series of stages, and it relies heavily on peers who reinforce and isolate the individual from those people who might impede the process.

Stage One: Gain Involvement

In the initial stage, the individual is targeted by a group in a number of ways, such as through an individual written or oral response, or a random encounter.

Stage Two: Solidify Involvement, Gain Control

In the second stage, the group works to gain increasing commitments of time, effort, and resources from the individual while increasing the individual’s isolation from peers and family outside the group. Group members will engage the individual in greater depth on thoughts, beliefs, activities and choices.

Stage Three: Solidify Control

In the third stage, the individual begins to unwittingly cede control over major aspects of his/her life to the group and its leadership. By this point, the radical changes in the individual’s beliefs, activities, and commitments are likely to be clearly discernible to former friends or family due to their extremity.

How Can I Protect Myself?

You are most vulnerable when:

  • You are lonely
  • You are hurting
  • You are having a tough time socially
  • You are having academic problems
  • You are new to UM or preparing for graduation
  • You are feeling overwhelmed or confused

What can you do when you are contemplating joining a group?

Ask Yourself:

  • Does the group seem to have simplistic answers to complex world issues?
  • Does the group allow or encourage questions and discussion about its beliefs?
  • Does the group require members to give up their traditions, beliefs and goals?
  • Does the group respect a members’ commitment to family and friends?
  • Does the group encourage members to continue studying as before?
  • Does the group allow new members to have quiet times alone?
  • Does the group require absolute obedience and devotion to its leader?
  • Does the group have many names it uses to order to hide its identity?

Take steps:

Ask the opinion of someone you trust who is not a member of the group - a friend, professor, UM staff member, RA, parent, counselor, or member of the clergy.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask specific questions. Be skeptical and don’t accept evasive answers.
  • Take a stand! Learn to say no!
  • Get support from residence hall administrators on how to protect your privacy.
  • Examine yourself; are you vulnerable? Get the support and help you need!
  • Resist attempts to isolate you. Stay in touch with family and friends.
  • Consider whether or not you can get an accurate or clear picture of a group before attending a meeting.
  • Tell residence hall or campus staff about overzealous recruiters.

Ask the Group:

  • How difficult it is to leave the group?
  • What national groups, if any, is the group affiliated with?
  • What has this group accomplished during the past six months? Can this be substantiated?
  • What values does the group advocate?
  • How is the group funded?
  • What commitments of time, money, and other resources does the group expect of its members?
  • Are members expected to solicit money, recruit new members, or engage in other promotional activities? Are the members assigned fixed recruitment quotas?

    Note: For destructive groups the answers may be totally at odds with reality.

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Don’t give your name, address or phone number (or any other personal information) to strangers.
  • Resist the temptation to debate strangers.
  • Be rude if necessary in order to free yourself from recruiters.
  • Take a friend along if you attend a function of an unknown group, and don’t let the two of you be separated.
  • Don’t go away on a weekend “retreat” without checking out the sponsoring organization.
  • Before joining a new group, try to find specific information about the group (from the library, a teacher, counselor, friend, or family member).
  • Before joining a new group, ask the recruiters for printed information identifying the group, its activities, and its beliefs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do some students turn to dangerous groups?

The pressures on college students -- particularly undergraduates to a new level of freedom and personal responsibility -- include the exploration of new and untested ideas, the questioning of beliefs and attitudes that had gone unchallenged in childhood, the wrestling with who the young adult is and wishes to become, and the need to become part of a group that supports and helps define the student’s emerging persona.

All of these elements combine to make the student vulnerable to groups that offer simplistic (and often idealistic) answers to life’s questions, promise a ready-made circle of friends, and provide a focal point on the confusing, troubling journey through late adolescence.

Have dangerous groups been a problem at College Park?

They certainly exist at the University, but any accurate assessment of their level of activity is complicated by the surreptitious nature of dangerous group activity as well as our need to respect students’ rights of privacy in personal matters.

Anecdotal evidence (student or parent requests for assistance, as well as information received from concerned staff members, parents and students generally) indicates that there is no reason to suspect that the level of activity is appreciably different from that at other large urban universities across the nation

What can or should the University do?

There may be little more the University can or should do considering our respect for students’ rights of privacy in personal matters, as well as for freedom of speech and religion. There also are legal constraints on the University’s oversight of student groups.

In those situations, however, when a complaint is filed alleging that an individual or group has violated University rules and regulations, the incident will be fully and aggressively investigated and appropriate disciplinary or legal action will be taken.

Why can’t off-campus recruiters for dangerous groups simply be prohibited from soliciting members on campus?

Because of the quasi-public nature of the University and free speech laws, we do not ban non-campus groups from speaking and/or recruiting on the campus. We also, however, do not provide accommodations for them (for example, use of rooms or permission to solicit within buildings).

I’ve heard rumors that dangerous group members go door to door in the residence halls soliciting new members. Why are they allowed to do that?

They are not allowed to do that. It is unlawful and a violation of residence hall rules to conduct any unauthorized solicitation within the residence halls. Any resident student faced with such solicitation should report it immediately to his or her Resident Director.

Other colleges and universities have banned organizations commonly regarded as dangerous groups. Why hasn’t the University of Maryland?

Given the quasi-public nature of the University of Maryland, it is extremely difficult to impose restrictions on free speech, or to ban organizations from speaking and recruiting on campus. The University has traditionally held to a broad interpretation of the First Amendment. This means that unlike some public universities, Maryland has never, for example, attempted to implement the kinds of speech codes that ultimately have been overturned by the courts. Our stance is that unless we feel an abridgement of the First Amendment is likely to withstand legal challenge -- and few are -- we are best advised to use devices such as public awareness and the exposing of controversial issues to the light of open debate.

Who coordinates the University’s efforts to deal with dangerous groups on campus?

The Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs is the central coordinating point for concerns about and information on dangerous group activity at Maryland. From that point, depending on the particular situation, callers will be referred to other appropriate offices on campus.