The wider world generally thinks that Burning Man—a 70,000-person temporary, art-filled, participatory society in the desert—is a place where there are no market forces, no regulation, and people just spend a week in the desert gifting (and partying), but this year I came to understand that this is not the case. Burning Man is a society that carries many of the same rules as our current society but with some important twists.
At Burning Man your status as a camp is decided by your location. Most burners would generally agree—being placed closer to the Esplanade (the inner circle) is more desirable. Being farther away from the Esplanade is less desirable.
This paradigm isn’t too dissimilar to our normal society, where living closer to the city center tends to be more desirable. However, at Burning Man, living closer to the city center has nothing to do with the amount of money you or your family earn. Instead, the location of your camp primarily depends on the camp’s public contributions to the event. An official Burning Man Placement Team decides where camps are located based on what the camp will contribute. The stated criteria: “Theme camps allocate their collective focus, time, and resources primarily toward their public contributions rather than personal comfort and convenience. Conveniences are used in service of the camp’s contribution, which adds to the vibrancy of the city” [emphasis added].
Moon Cheese camp makes and gives away close to 1,000 grilled cheese sandwiches every night from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Red Lighting camp puts on a dozen well-being related events a day, including yoga, a men’s circle, sound healing, and lectures on love and self-expression. DeathGuild built a Thunderdome for steel-cage jousting. Every night massive crowds watch friends, suspended in the air by bungee cords, hurled at each other with foam covered bats. All of these camps were on the Esplanade, the prime location for attracting burners to their contribution.
People don’t care about their location because they’d have a longer bike ride to grilled cheese and jousting. They care because they would have to work much harder to attract people to their public contribution. Being farther from the Esplanade typically means that less people get the chance to enjoy your offering. Burning Man is unlike our everyday society in a lot of ways, but it’s still based on who has land and where it is. The three rules of real estate—location, location, location—still apply.
Burning Man is unlike our everyday society in a lot of ways, but it’s still based on who has land and where it is. The three rules of real estate—location, location, location—still apply.
This year I volunteered to interview camp leaders on behalf of the Placement Team. They wanted to figure out the degree to which camps were happy with their location and why. So, over the course of five hours, I helped interview 11 camp leaders to learn more.
Unsurprisingly, most camp leaders based how much they liked their location on how easy it was to attract other burners to their events, art, or other offerings. The Tea House liked being placed on a corner because more people wandered in for tea. The Space Camp was delighted their interactive observatory art piece was placed in a center plaza.
But something unexpected also surfaced from our conversations. Regardless of whether the camp liked their location or not, most camps were already devising ways they would make their offerings bigger or better next year. The bike repair shop was going to give out devices to protect bikes from dust. Preservation Society was considering doubling the number of lights on their art car. Camp Conception was going to redesign their structure that provided people with more public shade.
From an outsider’s perspective, the gift economy, massive art installations, and Mad Max–looking outfits might make Burning man look like a completely different society. This hints that it may not be so different after all.
In our current world—let’s call it the default world—our relative position in society is often based on our personal consumption. If we have a bigger house, a better car or fancy clothes, we tend to have a higher status. We work hard to get these things. But when we get these things, we don’t stop working. We continue to work hard to get an even better car or an even bigger house.
This is commonly known as “keeping up with the Joneses.” While it may seem like harmless competition, economist Robert Frank, author of the Darwin Economy, sees this type of consumption as a destructive “arms race.” When we work longer hours to buy a bigger house in order to get into the best neighborhood school, we don’t factor in is that everyone is doing the same thing, and we’re changing the norm on how nice or big a house has to be. We’re all fighting to be higher on the ladder, but when progress is made, there is still pressure to keep climbing. Meanwhile, as a group, we’re all spending more and saving less without being any better off.
Camps at Burning Man are also in an arms race. But the arms race is not around personal consumption—nobody cares how cool your tent is or what bike you have. In fact, it’s not socially acceptable to talk about these things. The arms race is around your contribution to society. “Where do you camp?” is quickly followed by “What do you give?”
Camps at Burning Man are also in an arms race. But the arms race is not around personal consumption…The arms race is around your contribution to society.
But every year, when burners bring more food to give away, create more workshops and buy louder speakers for music camps, the norm changes. It’s no longer ok to have one event. You need to have multiple events. It’s no longer ok to give away plain snow cones, everyone is doing that (I had 4!). You need to offer snow cones with rum.
While it may feel disappointing that Burning Man is playing the same game as the default world and just swapping one rat race for another, this realization is incredibly uplifting.
Burning Man has harnessed the human desire for relative positioning. Instead of being judged on our personal consumption, however, it’s our collective contribution that matters. Interacting with other people, giving generously, creating art for public consumption—all increase the individual’s and society’s well-being. While each individual is still fighting to be higher on the ladder, the pressure to keep climbing adds to their happiness. Meanwhile, the group as whole wins (assuming the efforts stay directed toward collective contributions rather than personal consumption).
There was no educational campaign or financial incentive to get people to change their behavior around giving. There was no initiative to change values about “participation” or “connection” that changed behavior. What worked? Putting someone into a new environment. Burning Man drops people from all walks of life into a new environment.
There are new rules for participation. You cannot, under any circumstance, litter. You cannot use money. You can offer ChapStick to someone you just met. You should talk to people while waiting in line. You must design your camp (your home!) to be inviting to everyone.
Within a day, people who have never been to Burning Man before are shouting into a megaphone at strangers asking them to check out their camp’s clothing bazaar or join a bar game dance off or attend a formal “how to twerk” twerkshop. By changing the environment, Burning Man changes people’s behavior.
As behavioral scientists, we are often making small tweaks to the environment in hopes that big change will follow. Burning Man expands our notions of what’s possible. It also suggests we may need to think bigger. Small tweaks did not create Burning Man.
My favorite interactive experience this year was not seeing a big art car or receiving a delicious chocolate iced mocha coffee at 10 a.m. It was a stationary exercise bike. The bike was positioned right outside the 3 and I porta potties. At first, people didn’t know why it was there. But then someone would hop on and start biking. And all of a sudden—if it was night—all the people in the porta potties would gasp. They had light! The bike was a solar bike. The bike was connected to lights within the porta potties. The person who made the bike wasn’t there to watch the magic happen. They left it for others to figure out and then enjoy.
My guess is next year this person will outdo themselves. They will bring more and bigger lights. But maybe that’s ok. This arms race has positive externalities. The maker will be happier because they gave more, the people who ride the bike will be happier because they helped their fellow burner, and of course, the people in those porta potties will be delighted.
As behavioral scientists, we are often making small tweaks to the environment in hopes that big change will follow. Burning Man expands our notions of what’s possible. It also suggests we, as behavioral scientists and practitioners, may need to think bigger. Small tweaks did not create Burning Man. Burning Man created a new handbook for society’s basic norms. The only question now—Where else can we redesign the handbooks of life to get exponential positive change?