How to Go to Burning Man Without Going to Burning Man

This is part one of our series on behavioral scientists at Burning Man—the temporary society of 70,000 that springs up each summer for a little over a week in the Nevada Desert. Burning Man is defined by the radical norms it promotes, like its gift economy. It’s one giant social experiment—candy for the curious behavioral scientist. In part two, Kristen Berman explains how, even at Burning Man, you can’t escape the urge to “Keep Up with the Joneses”—with one key difference

Burning Man has just finished—which means it’s the time of year when many media outlets pepper their pages with images of dusty campers wandering around flaming octopuses, 40-foot-high statues, and other monumental art pieces characteristic of the event. While these photo essays delight some readers, in others they spark weariness. On my Facebook feed, someone writes, “I will never understand the fascination with that festival. I wouldn’t go if it were my job to do so.” Another chimes in, saying, “It looks like a huge pain. You can have a better time staying home.”

They have a point: there are certainly easier ways of spending a week’s vacation. To go to Burning Man, you have to equip yourself to live safely in a remote, high-altitude desert location with intensely changeable weather. You must bring everything you need—including shelter, food, and water. You commit to live by ten principles that bind you to a socially generous, environmentally conscious code of conduct. You’re quite likely to be volunteering rather than relaxing during some of your time in Black Rock City (the name given to the temporary metropolis that attendees build each year).

Could it be possible to access some of the considerable psychological benefits of the Burning Man experience while “staying home?”

Yet hordes trek back to Burning Man again and again. Among them are many behavioral scientists—some of whom do indeed see it as their job to investigate the increasingly well-documented positive behavioral impact of the event. Reported effects include the way that participants respond to stress more effectively, become more open-minded, and go on to volunteer more in their communities. A team led by Yale University professor Molly Crockett is close to concluding a multi-year study exploring the sort of shifts in well-being and altruism that occur at Burning Man. As she says, “If social scientists were to build a new society designed to promote cooperation, based on evidence from lab studies, it would probably look a lot like Black Rock City.” 

Molly and I count ourselves among those repeatedly drawn back to Burning Man by these benefits—in fact, a good deal of our friendship has been forged while preparing for the “Burn” together. (Dust goggles? Check. Dust mask? Check. Materials for Ultimatum Game experiments? Check.) But given that the event is hard to get to and only happens once a year, we began pondering: Could it be possible to access some of the considerable psychological benefits of the Burning Man experience while “staying home,” with a much smaller investment of time and effort? Say, over the course of one evening with friends and family?

It was a seductive enough idea that we gathered together a small group of people, with 25 or so Burns between us, to see if it was possible to create this kind of miniaturized Burning Man experience. We started our planning by making a list of our favorite aspects of life in Black Rock City and discussing how we’d approximate each of them in the space of a few hours.

Our hunch was that much of the positive impact of attending Burning Man comes from the pervasive norm of pro-social giving.

Top of our list was the importance of altruism—or, in Burning Man parlance, “gifting.” At the heart of the Burning Man ethos is a twin expectation: that you are sufficiently prepared and self-reliant in that you bring what you need for your own survival, but that you also stand ready to be exceptionally generous to others. What you give depends on your resources, abilities, and interests. It could be a general willingness to lend a hand, or something tangible that people might need (chewable vitamins, perhaps) or enjoy (like a piece of interactive art). Our hunch was that much of the positive impact of attending Burning Man comes from the pervasive norm of pro-social giving, since research has demonstrated time and again that generosity delivers a powerful boost in well-being for givers as well as receivers.

So we wondered—what could we give that would be widely welcomed by strangers on the chilly November streets of London, our home town at the time? We settled on woolen hats and gloves, supplemented by warming flasks of mulled wine and hot chocolate. We also decided to spend part of our evening decorating the hats and gloves we were giving out, by gluing on sequins and studs. Our inner kindergartners were thrilled, while the behavioral scientists in the group also muttered happily about the additional benefits of the IKEA effect in making our gifts feel more meaningful.

Image: Sarah Lazarovic

Working together to plan the event was already proving a neat way of bonding our own group. But we also wanted to embody the Burning Man principle of “radical inclusion”: the idea that we should recognize the humanity in all people and “welcome and respect the stranger.” Many people’s favorite moments from Burning Man come from serendipitous interactions with random passers-by—a fact backed up by the research on how our mood can be lifted even by brief interactions with weak ties. But if we were to engage strangers in conversation, we also wanted to make sure that we were able to signal our benign intent. So we agreed to dress in conversation-starting costumes—the added benefit being an opportunity to do some of the “radical self-expression” that’s another enjoyable part of Burning Man. For me, that usually includes wearing a colorful wig. On this occasion, I opted for a red one, while Molly went for blue. 

Another thing many attendees prize about Burning Man is the lack of distraction from smartphones. The Burner principle of “immediacy” translates into an expectation that you’ll free yourself of your devices while you’re there. Although it comes under increasing pressure each year, this principle mostly still holds (somewhat helped by the lack of good cell signal in the Black Rock Desert). It forces a kind of digital detox that arguably improves the quality of conversations and reflections out there. But could we really leave our phones behind while we roamed London? What if something went wrong and we needed help? We decided to take one phone between us all—and leave it switched off unless needed. We also agreed a clear rendezvous plan in case we got separated.

We agreed to dress in conversation-starting costumes—the added benefit being an opportunity to do some of the “radical self-expression.”

Finally, perhaps the hardest challenge in our experiment was incorporating the principle of “decommodification.” At Burning Man, you can’t buy anything apart from limited amounts of ice and coffee. No advertising is allowed—U-Haul even supplies logo-blocking decals for people who take its vehicles to the desert. The effect of not being surrounded by solicitations to buy products is oddly soothing, and helps to preserve altruistic intentions and behaviors by keeping people operating in a “social market” rather than a monetary market. We knew it was a privilege to be able to discuss whether to take money with us or not—as in any big city, London has people living on the streets who would love to have this choice. But in our lucky group, we realized that the only reason we really needed money would be to travel around town—and we could use pre-paid public transportation cards for that (known in London as Oyster cards). So we left our wallets at home.

On the day of our experiment, we met in the early evening to cook, make, and prepare. We were having fun—but we also noticed that we were prevaricating about leaving the house, feeling oddly nervous of how things would play out. Perhaps nobody would talk to us; after all, the British public is not known for its love of conversations with strangers. When we finally pushed through our reticence and strode out, the effects came quickly. Within a few yards of our front door, our costumes sparked jocular comments from an assortment of people at a nearby bus stop. We stopped to answer their questions about where we were going “dressed like that.” We took a deep breath and offered them our warm hats and drinks. When they asked us what it would cost, we said “nothing.” They were briefly confused—and then huge, disbelieving smiles spread across their faces. Their laughter and delight was more than we’d dared hope for, and our spirits soared.

The evening unfolded with experience after experience like this. I recall braving a conversation with a woman who initially frowned in our direction, discovering that she was unhappy about having had to move to London for work because she was worried that it was a cold and unfriendly place. After five minutes of easy chat, she declared that “the fact that this sort of thing can happen makes me feel I might be able to make a go of life here after all.” Later on, we unexpectedly started a sing-along involving all the passengers on a bus. As ever, it was gratifying to see behavioral science insights translate so effectively in real life—and on a personal note, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it ended up being one of the most memorable and uplifting nights of our lives. And we didn’t face a single desert dust storm along the way. 

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