Ki Sisa - The Psychology of the Golden Calf Fiasco


In the aftermath of a scandal having to do with embezzlement from a charity, a woman wrote an article chiding people for their moral outrage, suggesting that none of us can be certain of how we would act under similar circumstances.  I totally reject that idea.  I know myself pretty well, and I couldn’t imagine any set of factors where I would allow myselt to act like that.

This 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 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 like to think that I am that kind of girl. But that would be naïve thinking.

Psychologists used to believe that what matters most are the nature and character of the individual, paying scant attention to the person’s environment or situation.

The Shock "Ouch!"

In a landmark experiment, which 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.


Test subjects were told that they were participating in a study to understand the effect of physical punishment on memory, administering escalating electric shocks for mistakes.  Having predicted that a minute fraction of the test population would administer an electric shock at near fatal levels (which was fake) to the crying and convulsing victims (who were actors), the results were “shocking”.  When they told subjects that “the experiment must go on”, 63% of the participants were willing to administer shocks at near fatal levels!    

We now understand that the greatest predictor of behavior is the situation, the circumstances and the context – hence, the phrase, “situational press.”   This explains the effect of mob psychology and the possibility of erecting a Golden Calf after the giving of the Ten Commandments.

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.”

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 create the environment, social network, physical surroundings, activities and partners that are healthy, that support and reinforce your goals and aspirations, and that inspire, uplift and elevate you, rather than bring you down.  You can be part of a happy mob.

Take an inventory of what you allow into your space, into your head and into your life. Where, and with whom do you hang out? 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 shape your own destiny.

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.