The Author


I would like to think that in any situation, my highest, bravest self would guide me to do the right thing, no matter what. But that would be naive thinking.

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 certain of 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. Really – embezzling from a charity? No way! And so my moral outrage stayed intact, thank you very much.

This past week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, is about the sin of the Golden Calf.  I would like to think that I would never have participated in that disastrous spectacle, and if you have 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.

As I write this blog, I had just celebrated Purim. While many people are familiar with the Purim story opening with King Ahaseuros’s banquet, less known is the fact that the king was celebrating what he thought were his calculations that our Holy Temple would never be rebuilt. As an epic rub-in, the King donned the garments of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) and he even used the holy vessels from the Temple. And so the theme of the party was celebrating the end of the Jewish dream. Incredibly, many attendees of this party were Jewish. But some sat it out. I would like to think I that I would have been busy washing my hair that evening.

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 are 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 easily change our spots. Trying to change a character trait was as futile an endeavor as trying 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 that shook the psychological world, 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 socalled “normal person” be induced to commit an immoral act, and if so, what would it take?

Test subjects were told that they were participating in a study to understand the effect of physical punishment on memory, in which they were to administer escalating electric shocks for mistakes. So they would administer 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 subject didn’t know that he or she was the actual test subject and thought it was a memory study based on the person in the chair, but it was actually a study of induced cruelty submissive to authority.

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 were actors, but the real results were “shocking.”

When the participants would look up to see whether they should keep going, when the person in the chair would start to beg and cry, 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.

Prior to 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 with 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 administer shocks at near fatal 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 it is claimed 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 Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) says as much when the rabbis advise 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 and positive applications. Just as there are situations and people who can bring out the worst in you, the reverse is just as true!  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 true goals.

I suggest taking an inventory of what you allow into your space, into your head and into your life. Is it conducive to bringing out the best in you? Understand and use “situational press,” or the “power of the situation,” to your best advantage so that you can better forge your true identity and shape your own 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 would be, what kind of choices you would make, and what you know you will stand for.

Do You Love Israel? Make a Donation - Show Your Support!

Donate to vital charities that help protect Israeli citizens and inspire millions around the world to support Israel too!

Now more than ever, Israel needs your help to fight and win the war -- including on the battlefield of public opinion.

Antisemitism, anti-Israel bias and boycotts are out of control. Israel's enemies are inciting terror and violence against innocent Israelis and Jews around the world. Help us fight back!


Article by Hanna Perlberger

Hanna Perlberger, a former divorce lawyer who became a relationship and positive psychology coach, supports people in "living the life that they love with the love of their life". As a writer, teacher, and lecturer, her sweet spot is the intersection of Torah and Positive Psychology. For more information, please visit her website at Make The Best Of You or contact her directly at