For today’s post, we present an excerpt from Jon Atack’s book, Opening Minds: the Secret World of Manipulation, Undue Influence and Brainwashing.

In 1985, the Boston Church of Christ asked Flavil Yeakley, a personality test expert, to make a study of its members. Critics insisted that the group caused unhealthy transformations of personality in its members. The Boston Church of Christ was accused of being a ‘cult’ that was ‘brainwashing’ its members.

Over 900 members filled in extensive questionnaires. Yeakley also administered the Meyers-Briggs’ Type Indicator to 30 members each of six groups generally regarded as ‘manipulative sects’ – Yeakley’s expression – including Scientology, The Way, the Unification Church (or Moonies), the Hare Krishna Society, Maranatha and the Children of God, and to 30 members each in five mainstream churches: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian. The same personality test was filled out three times by most of the subjects – as if it were five years earlier; from their present perspective; and how they anticipated they would answer five years into the future.

In Yeakley’s words, ‘Changes in psychological type do not indicate normal healthy growth. Such changes indicate some pressure in the environment that causes people to deny their true type and try to become like someone else.’[i] There were no significant deviations in personality type over time among members of the five mainstream churches, but all of the ‘manipulative sects’ showed significant movement, including the Boston Church of Christ, in direct opposition to its leader’s conviction that his group was not a cult.

sects were changing the personalities of their membersYeakley found that there was a convergence towards a particular personality type within each manipulative sect, but that the type varied from group to group. In other words, the ‘manipulative sects’ were changing the personalities of their members, each towards its own specific type. The effect has come to be known as ‘cloning’ and is a substantial proof that thought reform occurs in some groups.[ii]

This work is supported by a study made by Paul Martin and Rod Dubrow-Marshall, who sampled 567 former members and demonstrated significant effects relating to depression, dissociation and anxiety induced by cult membership.[iii]

The term personality comes from a word meaning ‘mask’. There is significant disagreement about the nature of personality. A few experts are convinced that the individual is naturally a multiplicity of personalities, but it is easy to mistake changing moods for discontinuous personalities. When they are sad, people find it hard to recollect happy memories, where happy people have difficulty remembering sad memories. This does not mean that their personalities have changed, only the mood through which personality is expressed.

The personality is made up of many identities, which are adopted according to mood and to context. Who you are speaking to – a parent, a child, an employer, an employee, a waiter or a celebrity, for instance – all these factors colour identity. But these identities are strands of the continuum that makes up personality. In a totalist relationship, all of these identities are subsumed within the mood and behaviour demanded of the member.

What do you think about this excerpt? Do you agree? Have you read Opening Minds? Do you have a story about shifting personality that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!


[i] Flavil Yeakley, ed, The Discipling Dilemma, 1988: p.27.

[ii] ibid; Yeakley became president of the Association for Psychological Type in 1987.

[iii] Professor Rod Dubrow-Marshall, The Influence Continuum – the Good, the Dubious, and the Harmful – Evidence and Implications for Policy and Practice in the 21st Century, International Journal of Cultic Studies. vol.1, no.1, 2010.