In the aftermath of a scandal having to do with embezzlement from a charity, a woman wrote an article chiding people who responded with moral outrage, suggesting that none of us can be sure how we would act under similar circumstances, and therefore, we should not be so self-righteous and judgmental. I thought that idea was ridiculous. I know myself pretty well, and I couldn’t imagine any set of factors that would induce me to act like that. Embezzling from a charity? No way! And so my moral outrage stayed intact, thank you very much.
This week’s Torah portion, “Ki Sisa,” chronicles the sin of the Golden Calf. I would like to think that I would never have participated in that terrible spectacle. If you have ever seen the movie, The Ten Commandments, where Charlton Heston calls out, “Whoever is for the Lord, join me!” and a woman’s voice cries out from the crowd, “I will!” – I would like to think that I am that kind of girl.
I would like to think that in any situation, my highest best bravest self would guide me, injecting me with the fortitude to do the right thing, no matter what. But that would be naive thinking.
Historically, psychologists used to believe that what matters most is the nature and character of the individual, and that “we are who we are,” and who we are – for better or worse – doesn’t vary, and we don’t quickly change our spots. Trying to change a character trait, they thought, was as futile an endeavor as an attempt to be taller, for example, and so little attention was paid to the environment or situation in studying character. In the last few decades, the social sciences offer a different view of the solidity of the self and the infallibility of character. And when you hear the studies, you might get a little uncomfortable.
The Shock “Ouch!”
In a landmark experiment which shook the world of the social sciences, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who was instructing them to commit acts against their personal conscience. He was testing the theory of whether people are inherently evil or situationally evil. Could a so-called “normal person” be induced to commit an immoral act and if so, what would it take?
Test subjects who participated in a study were told it was to understand the effect of physical punishment on memory, in which they were to administer escalating electric shocks for mistakes. So they would conduct progressively harder memory tests to someone hooked up to a machine that would deliver higher and higher levels of electricity when the person failed to recall a string of words.
The test participants didn’t know that they were the actual test subject. The test participants thought they were assisting a memory study on the person in the chair. In actuality, it was the test participants who were the object of the experiment, which was to study how submission to authority could induce an otherwise reasonable person to inflict cruelty.
At 150 volts, the person would be yelling to be let out of the experiment. At 450 volts, the person would fall silent, presumably dead. In between 150 volts and 450 volts, the person would be begging, crying, convulsing, etc. The machine was fake, the victims in the chair were actors, but the real results were “shocking.”
When the actor in the chair would beg and cry, and the participants would look up to see whether they should keep going, the “authority figure” – who held nothing more threatening that a clipboard – would simply and calmly say, “please continue” or the experiment must go on”. They weren’t threatened or coerced in any way to inflict pain.
Before the study, the prediction was that most people would stop at 150 volts, and a minute fraction of the test population (one-tenth of a percent, which roughly corresponds to the statistical probability of sociopaths) would administer an electric shock at fatal or near fatal levels. Boy did science get it wrong! A whopping 63% of the participants were willing to deliver shocks at near lethal levels!
As a result of this and other experiments (which were repeated in other guises but with similar results), researchers started looking seriously into the effect of groups and external environments on behavior. And so now current theory claims that the greatest predictor of behavior is the situation, the circumstances, and the context – hence, the phrase: “situational-press.”
Perhaps this helps to explain the incident of the Golden Calf. It is simply too easy to dismiss all of the participants as being the riff-raff that tagged along with the Jewish people when they left Egypt. It’s too easy to look at them as “unworthy,” “less than,” “and not like you” so that you can keep your moral outrage intact, and assume you are invincible.
The Power of Environment
Our environment influences us a great deal more than we think. Whether we get married, whether we smoke, whether we do a host of things, depends a lot on our social network and the people around us, because “social power” can exceed “will power.” Of course, Pirkei Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers) said as much when the Rabbis advised that in picking where to live, you should make sure that you have a good neighbor.
But like any force, “situational-press” has its negative as well as its positive applications. Some situations and people bring out the worst in you; but the reverse is also true, bringing your best self to the table.
Once you realize the power of “situational-press,” you can consciously create the environment, the social network, the physical surroundings, the activities and partners that are healthy, that support and reinforce your goals and aspirations. You can use “situational press” to surround yourself with that which inspires, uplifts and elevates you, rather than that which brings you down, undermines and sabotages your real goals.
Take an inventory of who and what you allow into your space, into your head, and into your life. Is it conducive to bringing out the best in you? Are you being inspired, elevated and motivated? Or is it bringing you down?
When you understand and use “situational-press,” or the “power of the situation,” to your best advantage, you can forge your own identity and shape your greatest destiny. In so doing, you will create such a solid sense of yourself, and no matter what challenges face you, you know for sure what kind of person you will be, what kind of choices you will make and you know for sure what you stand for.