In the aftermath of a scandal having to do with embezzlement from a charity, a woman wrote an article in which she criticized 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.

The Torah portion, Ki Tisa, is about the sin of the Golden Calf. Just like I imagine myself immune from the temptation of embezzlement, I would like to believe that II would like to think that my bravest self would guide me would never have participated in that disastrous spectacle. 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 courage to do the right thing, no matter what. I would like to think that this frenzied mob would not test my willpower, but that even if it did, I would easily win that battle. 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; like the proverbial leopard, we don’t easily change our spots. Trying to change a character trait, the experts thought, 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.

Can You Resist a Marshmallow?

Recall, for example, the famous “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment,” in which children were seated in front of a marshmallow and instructed that they could eat the marshmallow now, or if they waited 15 minutes, they could have two marshmallows.

Afterward, the children were divided into two camps: those who could delay gratification for a greater reward (about a third of them) and those who could not. These children were then tracked for two decades, and, not surprisingly, those children who had shown greater willpower tended to be more successful in their academic, professional and personal lives.

The Willpower Trap

While the experiment yielded a critical finding in the benefits and advantages of being able to delay gratification, it presupposed that those children who could wait it out possessed greater willpower. And further, that this ability was a trait—like you either won the willpower gene lotto or you didn’t.

Getting back to the Golden Calf, we know that people were anxious and confused that Moses did not return on the date that they thought he would reappear. Had the perpetrators waited one more day, however—had they been able to resist temptation and delay their gratification briefly—all would have been well, and the course of human history could have been altered.

But if the quota of willpower is the luck of the draw, what could they have done differently? Is “the devil made me do it” an arguable defense? And if so, what can we do today when we face our own tests of will?

The Way-Power Solution

To answer that question, a group of social scientists created the Change Anything Lab, in which they wanted to test their theory that children could learn skills around mastering temptations. And so, they recreated the Marshmallow Test, but this time children were taught strategies, one of which was “distance and distraction.” When they felt the pull of the marshmallow becoming irresistible, for example, they could turn around to face the wall and recite to themselves their favorite bedtime story. Fifty percent more of the children armed with this strategy were able to resist, showing that success is not just a function of will, but one of skill. That finding alone has vast implications.

Then the scientists went further. They constructed an experiment where they told two groups of children that they would be given $40, and asked the children to imagine and articulate what they would like to do with that sum of money. Both groups of children were taken into a room and for 10 minutes, they were exposed to an assortment of ridiculously overpriced sweets and toys they could purchase with their money. Similar to the marshmallow experiment that tested delayed gratification, this setup was to test whether children would save money for a longer-term specific goal that was important to them or fritter it away on useless junk.

The children who successfully avoided temptation and who kept most of their savings proudly claimed that they were disciplined and motivated. Those children who spent most or all of their savings couldn’t even understand their behavior and shamefully concluded that they were failures. None of these children were right. By subtly manipulating the environment and employing what the researchers called “six sources of influence”—personal motivation and ability, social motivation and ability, and structural motivation and ability—they could create conditions that supported or hindered positive or negative behaviors.

For example, in the group influenced to save the money, before the children could even purchase the candies, they were asked to think about what they wanted to do with their money, thus interrupting their short-term impulses by remembering their long-term values. The savers were given paper and taught how to keep a running total of their purchases, where the children influenced to spend were given no such instructions and weren’t really aware of their shrinking fortunes. The savers were given real money so that they would have a tangible sense of their bottom line, whereas the spenders were told their money was in an account and purchases would be magically subtracted. In the room of the “spenders,” children who were part of the research team “spent” all their money urging the others to buy, buy, buy! The trained children who interacted with the “savers,” on the other hand, looked at the candy and toys with disdain, and urged the others to wait and buy these items for a fraction of the price later. Finally, the room of the “spenders” was lined with tantalizing pictures of candy, priming the environment to induce the desire for candy.

When the sources of influence were employed to encourage spending, the children spent most of their money on junk (a mere 10 minutes after declaring what they would do with their money), in contrast to the children influenced to save, where these children saved most, if not all, of their money.

The Boy Who Could ‘See’

But then there was Isaac. Although he was put into the groupMost of us fly blind of children who were influenced to spend, he was able to keep his cash. When he was questioned, Isaac simply stated that he could “see” what was happening, and he knew he had to be careful. Instinctively, Isaac avoided the manipulations and used the six sources of influence to his advantage.

Most of us fly blind, however, and are unaware of the sources of influence that manipulate us. The problem is not just that we make a poor choice in the moment, but when we fail in our goals, we fall into the depressing cycle of the “willpower trap” that keeps us locked in failure. The researchers at the Change Anything Lab offer a compelling vision for the science of personal success, showing that when we combine the sources of influence with personal and social forces, we have a powerful model to create the positive changes we want in our lives.

We Weren’t Taken out of Slavery for Nothing

It is too easy to dismiss those who participated as being the riff-raff that tagged along with the Jewish people when they left Egypt, so that we can keep our moral outrage intact and assume we are invincible. But this train of thought doesn’t help us deal with the inevitable mistakes and failures we incur along the way. Of course, some of us would rather blame our genes or the “devil who made us do it,” and not take personal responsibility to change. The Torah teaches us, however, that this kind of thinking is part of the “slave mentality” that we needed to free ourselves from when we were redeemed from Egypt.

You do not have to fall unwitting prey to the internal and external forces that undermine and sabotage your real goals. The point is to learn them for ourselves—and then consciously use them for our own good. When you understand these sources of influence, you can deliberately create the environment, the social network, the physical surroundings, the activities and partners that are healthy, that support and reinforce your goals and aspirations.

Take heart, for these are learnable skills. Now go and learn them.