The ‘transformative’ effects of mass gatherings like Burning Man last

Throughout history, mass gatherings such as collective rituals, ceremonies and pilgrimages have created intense social bonds and feelings of unity in human societies. But Yale psychologists wondered if modern secular gatherings that emphasize creativity and community serve an even broader purpose.

The research team studied people’s subjective experiences and social behavior at secular mass gatherings, such as the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. They found that people who reported transformative experiences at the gatherings felt more connected with all of humanity and were more willing to help distant strangers, the researchers report May 27 in the journal Nature Communications..

We’ve known for a long time that festivals, pilgrimages and ceremonies make people feel more connected to their own group,” said Daniel Yudkin, postdoctoral researcher and first author of the paper. “Here we show that experiences at secular mass gatherings also have the potential to expand the boundaries of moral concern beyond one’s own group.”

The research team, led by Yale Associate Professor of Psychology MJ Crockett, conducted field studies with more than 1,200 people attending multi-day mass gatherings in the US and UK. : Burning Man, Burning Nest, Lightning in a Bottle, Dirty Bird and Latitude, all events featuring art, music and self-expression.

The researchers set up booths at the events inviting passers-by to “play games for science”. Those who agreed to participate were asked about their experiences at the events as well as their willingness to share resources with friends and strangers.

Overall, 63.2% of attendees reported having had transformative experiences so profound that they left the events feeling radically changed, including a significant number of people who did not expect or wish not be transformed. (And yes, transformative experiences were more intense among the 28% of subjects who reported taking psychedelics.)

People who reported transformative experiences also reported feeling more socially connected with all human beings, and with each passing day of these events, participants widened their circle of generosity beyond family and friends to include distant strangers. They recontacted some of the original attendees as well as 2,000 people who had attended the event but were not originally interviewed. The researchers found that the transformative experiences and their prosocial feelings persisted for at least six months.

The results are an important reminder of what we’ve been missing over the years of pandemic isolation: powerful social experiences, or what sociologist Emile Durkheim has called ‘collective effervescence’,” Yudkin said.

Crockett concluded, “Transformative experiences help people transcend self-boundaries and connect with all of humanity – crucial qualities to cultivate as we work to end this pandemic and prevent future ones.”

The research was conducted as part of The Experience project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, University of California Los Angeles, University of Denver and University of Bath in the UK contributed to the study.

Sara H. Byrd