The Science of Generosity
More and more studies are happening at transformative events around the world. This summer a research paper was published about how transformative effects of these gatherings are lasting. This 5-year experiment compared findings from a half-dozen mass gatherings.
The results explore generosity and altruism, describe collective effervescence, and consider the biases of self-selection and psychedelic substances. People report that transformative experiences are common, increase over time, and include new perceptions of each other… and universal connectedness… and lasting changes in moral orientation.
How did they do it? What did they find, and how does it relate to you, and to me, and to BRC?
If you like science, or psychology, or transformation, or if you want to like them, listen as social scientists share stories with Stuart about the pleasure, the pain, and the process.
Molly Crockett, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University
Daniel Yudkin, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania
Prosocial correlates of transformative experiences at secular multi-day mass gatherings | Nature
Researchers Share First Findings on Burners’ Transformative Experiences | Burning Man Journal
Collective effervescence – Wikipedia
S. Megan Heller (The Countess of The BRC Census)
Burning Progeny | 2018 Symposium in Fribourg
Oh, and see this too: burningman.org/feedback-loop
And this: census.burningman.org
Molly Crockett investigates how people learn and make decisions in social situations. Her work has focused on how people decide whether to help or harm, punish or forgive, trust or condemn, applying these insights towards understanding moral cognition in the digital age and across different types of social relationships.
Daniel Yudkin’s research centers on the psychology of moral decision-making and its implications for individuals, organizations, and society. He is also a jazz pianist and lives with his wife and daughter in Brooklyn, New York.
STUART: All right. Welcome back everybody to another episode of Burning Man Live. I’m Stuart Mangrum. Long time listeners of the show know that sometimes I like to nerd out on academic research around Burning Man and scholarship of this crazy phenomenon that’s going on, and all of its tentacles out in the world.
And if you follow such things, you may have noticed that a short while ago a pretty significant paper was published in the Journal of Nature Communications with the title Prosocial Correlates of Transformative Experiences at Secular Multi-day Mass Gatherings, which is a mouthful, but in the more popular press versions of this, a little more catchy headline: Transformative Effects of Mass Gatherings like Burning Man are Lasting.
So we’re going to talk a little bit about research into the mystery of personal transformation. With me, I have Molly Crockett, who is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. Hello, Molly.
STUART: Nice to have you here. Also, another co-author of the paper, Daniel Yudkin, is here, who I believe started his research on this when he was a grad student at Yale with Molly, and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Hello, Daniel.
DANIEL: Hi Stuart. Yeah. Nice to be here.
STUART: Yay. So I just wanna dive right in. Actually, let me just read a little bit out of the abstract here, just so that people know a little bit about what this research was about. “Observations at six field studies and 22 online follow up studies spanning five years showed that self-reported transformative experiences at mass gatherings were common, increased over time, and were characterized by feelings of universal connectedness and new perceptions of others. These findings highlight the prosocial qualities of transformative experience at secular mass gatherings and suggest such experiences may be associated with lasting changes in moral orientation.”
That’s pretty fascinating. Let’s start just with the word ‘transformative,’ because that’s a slippery word and we always have some issues around that. How do you guys define that?
MOLLY: We define transformative experiences in this work, actually based on some really precise and elegant work and philosophy by Lori Paul, who’s a colleague of ours at Yale. And Lori has conceptualized transformative experiences as having two critical components.
The first component is epistemic transformation, meaning that the experience teaches you something new that you couldn’t have imagined or anticipated before the experience. And I think most of us who have been to Burning Man have had the experience of anticipating and thinking about what it will be like the first time, and then when we get to playa, we quickly realize that a lot of the things we had imagined were maybe inaccurate, and there were many things that surprised us about our experience.
STUART: Right. And we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
MOLLY: Absolutely. The second component of transformative experience in Lori Paul’s account is personal transformation. And this she describes as the experience changing your values, what you care about, in ways, again, that you couldn’t have necessarily anticipated, and that change in values critically comes from the new things that you learn from the experience. So these two components of transformation, both epistemic and personal, make a transformative experience.
And, it’s really hard to study these kinds of experiences in the lab. We can’t just make them happen on demand. So in order to learn more about it, what it’s like to have them, and what happens when you do have them, we wanted to go to mass gatherings like Burning Man, because we expected that these are settings where we would be able to study these experiences in the wild.
STUART: In the research you talk about two kinds of benchmarks for that: Generosity and moral expansion. Generosity, I think everybody knows what, but what’s moral expansion? And is that related to another term that I saw in there: Group Identity Fusion?
DANIEL: Yes. So the way that we think about moral expansion is actually building off of some really important work that was done by the philosopher Peter Singer and others. He talks about “the circle of moral regard.”
And he originally conceptualized this as, just the degree of sense of obligation that we have towards various people in our lives that can be starting with, for example, our immediate family, our closest friends, our extended family, and then gradually sort of expanding out to our neighborhood, our community, our city, our state, our country, and then to the entire world.
And what Singer really nicely argues is that one of the signifiers of moral progress, is people’s ability to expand what was originally might have been a sort of a rather constrained sense of moral concern for people who are really only in our most immediate social circle. And to expand that to more and more distant others until it eventually sort of encompasses all humanity.
This basic idea of moral expansion being a form of moral progress, is something that really captivated us with our research and was something that we thought, based on personal experiences, based on testimonial accounts from participants, that this might be one of the changes that people experience that might be associated with these transformative experiences.
So, that was one of the things that we were really interested in looking at, was to see whether people do indeed have a wider circle of moral regard after they experience transformative experiences at these events.
STUART: And as we all know, people at least in Western societies, their circle of moral regard has been shrinking pretty dramatically over the last hundred years.
I just reread Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone about the death of actual human face to face social networks,
STUART: since the war. I wanna talk more about that later, but first, I’m still kind of digging into this word transformative. And if you ask someone if they had a transformative experience, that could mean anything… You know, a lot of people say, “Yeah, I went to Burning Man and transformed. I finally ditched my old dumb boyfriend and got a new one.” But, in the surveys, and we’ll talk about methodology too, but the survey responses ranged from what, from “everything is different” to, I think one of them I read was, what was it? “Feeling as though one self had dissolved.”
STUART: What were the degrees of commitment between “dissolution of self” and no impact at all?
DANIEL: Molly, you wanna answer? I’m happy to go ahead on this one too.
MOLLY: Yeah, you know, one of the really interesting questions when planning this research was, how should we be thinking about the balance between subjectivity and objectivity? And I’ll explain what I mean by that. One of our collaborators, Megan Heller, who’s known on playa as Countess, and started the Burning Man Census…
STUART: Hey, Countess!
MOLLY: Yeah, started the Burning Man Census. She was a really valuable collaborator because she comes from a cultural anthropology background, and the nature of her work and her approach is really prioritizing and centering the lived experiences of participants at these events. And, she really insisted from the beginning, and we’re really grateful to her for that, for taking seriously self-reports that people give in these types of experiences, and looking at how those self-reports of transformation are correlated with what we might describe as quote unquote more objective measures of prosocial behavior, generosity, and altruism, that folks who are trained in a tradition of quantitative social science would typically use, or maybe take even more seriously potentially than what people tell you.
And in the process of doing this research, I think the way I have thought about the value of subjective reports has really changed. We have learned so much from what our participants have shared with us about these experiences. And the data speak for themselves; we do need to take seriously people’s reports that they feel transformed by these events. We can see in the data, even after you control for, even after you account for, people’s expectations or desires that they would have a transformative experience at these events, we still see significant associations in our data between people’s reports of feeling transformed and other patterns in their behavior that would be really, really difficult to just sort of spontaneously make up or fabricate.
So, I think that the takeaway from these studies is that people report that they feel profoundly transformed oftentimes at these events, that these reports of transformation are persisting up to six months afterwards, and, what’s really interesting is that there are also qualities of transformative experience that are specifically associated with these prosocial changes.
And Daniel, maybe you could say a little bit more about the qualities of transformation, in particular, the differences we observe between qualities of transformative experience that people report just from simply attending these events, and qualities that they report when they have transformative experiences brought on by psychedelic substances, which we’ve also looked at in this research.
STUART: Yeah, I was gonna go there too because when you start talking about “disillusion of the self,” it becomes pretty clear that in whatever sample group you get at a Burning Man type event, you’re probably gonna get a lot of people who are tripping balls.
STUART: And I notice also that some of the methodology of psychedelic research, I know that’s not what this was, seems to have crept in here. You know, the discussion of set and setting, if not dosage, right?
STUART: So yeah, Daniel, if you could talk to that a little bit.
STUART: It’d be fascinating.
DANIEL: Absolutely. It’s funny because it really is almost always, you know, when I explain the research to friends and families and acquaintances, when I talk about the research, it’s almost inevitable that the first question that I’ll get asked is like, “Well, isn’t it just that people are on a bunch of acid and that’s what’s happening?” And so, as researchers it was a particularly important challenge for us to be able to parse apart the effects that we observed merely from attending these gatherings, over and above what you would get from people who are on a hallucinogen and things like that.
We did that in a number of different ways. We asked a variety of questions about people’s substance use. We allowed them to indicate what substances they were on at the moment, what they had been taking so far that week. We did it in a way that allowed them to not be self-incriminating, which actually took a bit of verbal finagling in the actual question wording, but it allowed people to be able to answer truthfully in a way that didn’t potentially elicit the concerns of self-incrimination.
And so having that data on hand allowed us to then use a variety of statistical processes to basically look and say: Okay, among the people who are taking hallucinogenic drugs, what was their level of transformative experiences? What were the qualities of transformation that they were experiencing versus people who reported that these were not substances that they were on?”
What we found is that the transformation that we saw from the gatherings was really social in nature, and it was really about this sense of connectedness to others, this sense of feeling like you’re part of something larger than yourself. Whereas the transformation that was brought on by psychedelic substances, for example, did have those components, but it also included things like feeling as though you’ve perceived something new about reality itself. There were features of both that allowed us to kind of pull these apart and say, “Okay, yes, certain types of transformation are gonna be elicited and enhanced and kind of multiplied by the use of psychedelic drugs, but that’s not all that it is.” There’s something more about going to a place like Burning Man that you experience, that you don’t necessarily need to be on hallucinogenic drugs to experience. What we identified was really that social aspect of the transformation, that sense of connectedness.
STUART: The reason that I wanted to talk about psychedelics right at this point was that I really want to get a little deeper into the methodology that you guys used. And it looks like a pretty interesting mix of pre, during and post-event surveys, but also some lab in the field approach. Tell us a little bit about that, Molly.
MOLLY: Yes. We are experimental social psychologists and most of the work that we do is in a lab setting, or nowadays we do a lot of research online, but it’s still sort of, it’s in a setup where we can ask really precisely tailored questions to try to get at the cognitive and emotional mechanisms behind people’s behaviors.
You know, quite a lot of research that has been done looking at mass gatherings, and transformative experiences, has been retrospective in nature. You put out an ad on social media and ask, “We’re interested in hearing about your experiences at Burning Man,” or other festivals or other spiritual gatherings. You fill out a survey and report the nature of your experience. And we have learned quite a lot from these approaches. These approaches have suggested that people find these types of experiences transformative, and increased feelings of connectedness with the group, and so on.
But one limitation of this approach is that it’s relying on memory. And as we know, memory is constructive and reconstructive. We really wanted to get at the source. We wanted to be able to study people’s experiences at these events as they’re happening so that we could capture in as much detail as possible the psychological nature of transformation, its relationship to other things that they’re experiencing at these events, and its correlates in terms of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about the relationship between the self and others.
In order to do this, we had to set up shop at these events. And so we were really, really, um fortunate with our studies at Burning Man to be able to collaborate with the Census and to be able to actually set up our study at the Census in Center Camp, which was an ideal location because it’s so central, and that also allowed us to get… It’s not a purely random sample, but it is a pretty diverse sample of folks who are attending Burning Man.
And critically, we’re able to capture people by sampling at different points in time across the week. We’re able to capture people at different time points during their burn at Burning Man, or different time points during their experience at other mass gatherings. And then we’re able to use the time point as a variable in our data analysis that allows us to ask things like “If you’re really early in your experience, how likely are you to have felt transformation?” and more crucially, “What does your sense of moral regard look like?”
One of the key findings is that with every passing day people spend at these events, we can see more and more expansion of the moral circle. In the way that we measured it, that manifests as a willingness to spend more time helping a socially distant other relative to a socially close other.
STUART: So you actually experimented on people in Black Rock City, and at Nest, and so forth? Yes.
DANIEL: We did. I mean, we were wearing white lab coats, so there was a scientific aspect, of uh, that helped really kind of establish trust. People were like, “What? What are you guys doing here?” We’re like, “Well, we’re doing a real experiment here. We wanna know. We want to hear from you. We want to talk to you right now. We wanna know all about your experiences. So.”
MOLLY: I will say that this was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had doing research with human participants. It was just such an engaged group of participants. And one of the really unexpected but wonderful benefits to come out of doing this work with such an engaged group is that we got a lot of feedback especially early on, about our studies in our design, and in particular, one of my favorite stories is the very first year that we were collecting data on playa, we had a measure that was asking people hypothetically about how they would distribute a hundred dollars between themselves and other people at various social distances. What is perhaps unsurprising in hindsight, we got a lot of pushback from our participants about this measure. They were asking things like, “Why are you using money to ask about generosity, especially at Burning Man?” And they were totally right. We ended up changing our measure to not depend on money, and I think this is a broader point about the nature of social science research into altruism and generosity is that, quite often the sort of gold standard for measuring these behaviors uses money. As we know from Burning Man, that’s maybe not the best mode of exchange to be measuring these kinds of psychological processes.
STUART: Right. Necklaces are better. Uh. So yeah, tell us about the Dictator Experiments. Daniel, you told me first about this was the first time I heard about it when we met at the Burning Progeny Academic Conference
STUART: seems like 20 years ago. How does that work traditionally and how did you modify that?
DANIEL: The Dictator Game has been used in like hundreds of economic experiments. The basic idea is, you’re given a certain amount of money, usually. They ask you, “How much of that money do you wanna share with someone else?” Sometimes it’s a stranger, sometimes it’s someone that you know. And it’s just a question of like, “Okay, we’ve given you $10. Do you wanna share any of that with another person?” Why this is called The Dictator Game is because you are the dictator, you get to decide; nobody else has control over what amount of money gets transferred. And The Dictator Game is really useful. It’s a very, very basic measure of generosity. The key thing to know about it is that it’s incentivized. Decisions that I make in this situation affect me. If I give away $5, then that’s $5 less that I have.
This was the kind of paradigm that we wanted to use in our experiments, in our lab, in the field experiments. But of course, we needed to adapt it for the Burning Man setting. We created a mystery box which allowed people to kind of collect different prizes. To each participant we gave 10 tickets which could be redeemable for different prizes in the box. We just said, “Okay, we have an anonymous envelope and you are, you have 10 tickets in one envelope. We’re gonna give the other envelope to a stranger walking by and they are gonna get to redeem those tickets for a mystery prize too, and you get to decide how many of the 10 tickets that you have in your possession you wanna share with this other person.”
People put the tickets in this anonymous envelope. We didn’t know how much they had put in, but we were able to surreptitiously measure, later, how much they put in by matching the envelopes with a participant number that had been written on their own envelope. And through this process, we were able to essentially just determine, you know, how generous, how much of a feeling of sharing do people have, through these tickets that they’re giving away, certain of these tickets that would otherwise be redeemable for this prize in this mystery box.
This was one of the main, our main measures. Do the transformative experiences that people report having at these events correlate with their willingness to give away these raffle tickets? What we expected is that the amount of generosity that people would show would increase over time with each passing day as they were at these events, but we actually found what we consider just to be like a high ceiling effect, in which overall, with regards to the specific measure of generosity, there was no change over time the longer people were at these events. It was just simply that people were about three times more generous on average at these events than people are known to be in typical instances of The Dictator Game. So there’s high overall levels of generosity on this measure, but in this particular one, it doesn’t seem to change over time.
STUART: That’s awesome. Let’s talk about self-selection bias, because isn’t it possible that people who choose to go to Burning Man and these events just are, you know, feel it more of a hippie peace and love vibe and are just inclined to be more generous to begin with? How do you correct for that?
MOLLY: We can’t, It’s a totally valid point. That probably does explain at least some of our effects, right, like the nature of the individual is going to make a difference. Also just the culture of Burning Man in particular, and these sort of mass gathering events in general, right, is explicitly prosocial. And that’s why we went there in the first place. And I think that’s at least one of the factors why we see just such a high level of generosity in The Dictator Game compared to what’s typically observed in the literature with this measure.
But I would hesitate to say that a selection bias would explain all of the effects that we observe in our data. For one thing, not everyone who is attending these events is reporting a transformative experience. Even people who want one or who expect to have one. So there are folks in our data who say they didn’t really expect to have a transformative experience, or they didn’t necessarily want to have a transformative experience, but nevertheless they did have one. And to the extent they report having one, they also show increased moral expansion and feelings of universal connectedness to all of humanity.
A selection bias also couldn’t explain the change over time that we do see in moral expansion, because every passing day we’re seeing increases in this measure.
MOLLY: The experiment that you would ideally be able to run would be to randomly assign people to attend a mass gathering like Burning Man and have a control group who didn’t attend but is sampled from the same population and then compare prosocial behavior and transformative experience and all that good stuff, but we were not able to do that!
DANIEL: Next time.
MOLLY: So in the absence of that kind of a design, we’re, you know, just taking the first steps to establish some correlational relationships between what people report experiencing at mass gatherings, and their prosocial behavior and feelings as measured in a bunch of different ways that we can connect with the rest of the literature.
STUART: So if the generosity hit a high and or and steady ceiling, what I’m hearing is that the moral expansion curve just kept growing. Is that right?
DANIEL: Exactly. So that was the one where we did see a change over time, and that was one that from our perspective does a little bit more to address this question of selection effects, because as Molly alluded to, the same people that are responding to that measure over time; people who, in other words, decided to go to Burning Man, and so unless there were other selection effects going on, which are fairly implausible, that seems to be really a direct effect of this, the passage of time at these events.
STUART: I know you guys did research, at a number of events, Burning Man and the Burning Man events in England, but also some non-Burning Man, more commercial, events like Lightning in a Bottle. I would like to hope that Burning Man was different in some way from those, but maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know. What differences, what deltas, did you see between a Burning Man participant and a Lightning in a Bottle participant, if any?
MOLLY: That was one of the central questions we had going into the research. In fact, our original plan was to use Coachella as a control condition, or a comparison, but Coachella would not allow us to do our research at their event. We tried really hard. We spent a lot of time trying to make that happen because we thought that that would be a really interesting comparison for many reasons. But, we did have a hypothesis going into the research that we would see differences between events operating on a gift economy versus events operating in a market economy.
Daniel can maybe speak a little bit more to the differences that we did see, which we didn’t feel confident enough in to really make a big deal about in the paper. You know, just speaking from my own perspective as a researcher, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This was a pretty small study as far as behavioral research goes, and we were able to collect data from a lot of participants, and we really made efforts to get as large a data set as was feasible for us to collect. But I think when you’re talking about really, really noisy data, like social decisions and the effects of culture on human behavior, you really just need a lot more data than we were able to get. So I would say the jury’s still out on that. But we did see some hints of differences in the data, between the gift economy events and the market economy events, which Daniel can say a little more about.
DANIEL: There were a few measures in which people at Burning Man, for example, indicated a greater degree of social connectedness in terms of the types of transformation that they were experiencing. But again, we were expecting there to be differences, and I actually found if there are differences that they are smaller than we might have predicted at first.
And to me what that suggests is that people sometimes imagine that the only way that you can have one of these deeply transformative experiences is to go to the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada at significant expense and time, and put yourself in these very physically demanding and uncomfortable situations in a way that’s very difficult for many people to actually achieve.
To me, one of the takeaways from this lack of differences between events was that these kinds of experiences are actually maybe more widely available and more widely obtainable across different events than we might have originally expected. This sense of what we call “collective effervescence,” this sense of joint participation in a group activity, that was originally coined by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, is available in many different contexts: in religious context, at sports events, at concerts; and that sense of being part of something bigger than you, can then elevate you, and has the potential to create this greater sense of connectedness to the people around you, and maybe even be associated with these more prosocial measures too.
It’s all important to say that this is all very tentative and we still don’t exactly know the answer about what the differences there are, but to the extent that none emerged, maybe it just means that these experiences are more accessible than we might have thought.
STUART: It makes you wonder, is there something that people want, and that they’re finding it this way? I mean, at one point you do make a mention that, what is this, “prosocial changes are thought to emerge from psychological processes whose original adaptive function lay in promoting the survival of the group at the expense of the self.”
And looping back around to Putnam, in our postindustrial world, you know, the society of the spectacle that has been shrinking more, is it possible that there’s just some innate desire for people to break out of that isolation and loneliness and connect with people, and they just didn’t know how?
MOLLY: I’m sure, and one of the interesting findings to emerge out of this research that’s really kind of buried in the paper. You know, this is an effort of many, many … eight or nine years? I lost track, but there are so many different threads to pull. When we were writing this research up during the pandemic, it was not lost on us that all of the qualities that seem to be so crucial for surviving the stage of civilization that we find ourselves in, those qualities of an expanded moral circle and connectedness to all living things, that seem to be accessible in these mass gatherings, it’s tragic that we cannot gather together during the pandemic.
We ended up running a really, really small study last year, or was it the year before?
DANIEL: Yeah, the first, 2020.
MOLLY: During the virtual Burn.
STUART: Yeah. I wanna hear about that.
MOLLY: It was really hard to do that study because we were all just, at least my own mental health was completely in the tank at the time, and I think we were all really struggling, and we were kind of scrambling to collect data at the virtual Burn, and didn’t get as much data as we would’ve liked, to be able to draw any firm conclusions. But one thing that did come out, and correct me if I’m not remembering this right Daniel, but like, in terms of desiring a transformative experience, I think that the average participant like really wanted a transformative experience at the virtual Burn more than the desire for transformative experience at the actual Burn, which, you know, there are lots of ways you can interpret that data. To me, it suggests at the time there was this particular hunger for the kinds of social connection that we can experience at mass gatherings, and I think there is a hunger for the kinds of connection that we had for a long time in human history, and late capitalism has just kind of like made those a lot less accessible for various reasons.
It’s not lost on me that when we’re thinking about technologies that we have to facilitate wellbeing and social connection and cooperation, mass gatherings are a cultural technology and they’ve been around for a very, very, very long time. Also in conjunction with psychedelic substances. When we look at what new technologies like social media are doing for our connectedness and cooperation, the picture is not looking so good. This work has also changed the way I think about the relationship between new and old technologies for social connection, and how we might reimagine technologies which have a lot of potential, but, you know, are not doing so well.
STUART: So you’re saying social media is no Göbekli Tepe; it’s no Stonehenge?
DANIEL: Not quite.
STUART: That doesn’t have that ceremonial, uh, ritual getting-together thing. I think early on in the plague, I might have said on this program that Burning Man was the cure for social distancing. That was just a bad COVID joke, but I think we’ve just all been so distanced from each other by so many factors in society, I could see that as a real, real desire. I wanna know more about the virtual Burn participants and what Deltas you saw. So, more of them were going and looking for transformative experiences. Did they get what they were looking for?
DANIEL: No. People wanted one; the desire for a transformative experience was high. Expectations were low. They thought, “You know, I really wish I could have ’em, but I don’t, I’m not holding my breath.” And ultimately a sense of transformation that people experienced in these was quite low.
STUART: Well, okay. I wanna build a reading list here, and find out more about this, and I’m terrible at reading footnotes, so you wanna shout out any research that’s parallel to this or that inspires you, or anything that I should look for?
MOLLY: One of our reviewers in fact, was really, really helpful in pointing out a lot of research on mass gatherings.
DANIEL: Martha Newson.
MOLLY: Martha Newson, yeah. And Harvey Whitehouse, and folks who look at collective behavior. There are a lot of other folks doing research on Burning Man who were really helpful in advising us. Dominic Beaulieu-Prévost and you know, of course, Megan Heller’s dissertation about play at Burning Man.
DANIEL: Xygalatas, I’m not sure about his first name, but he just came up with a book called Rituals that came out this year, and knowing his work that’s just super careful and just really, really foundational in the study of how human ceremonies can elicit these prosocial changes. That would definitely be worth checking out as well.
STUART: Okay. Well, we’ll make sure some of this gets into the show notes for people. I wanna look some of this stuff up. I hope a lot of it is not behind an academic paywall, which I noticed your paper is not. Thank you for that.
STUART: Tell me a little bit more about the process of putting all this together. I imagine you must have had some grant money. You persuaded somebody to pay your expenses to go travel the world and go to festivals?
MOLLY: Well, as it happens, I learned about Burning Man as a graduate student and as someone studying prosocial behavior and cooperation, as soon as I learned that this place exists I was like “I have to go and experience this and understand what it’s like,” and quite naively, I had the thought that I would do research at my first Burn, and I started to plan stuff out and then quickly became overwhelmed by packing and logistics and other things.
It was really good that I didn’t actually do research at that first Burn; A, because I just had to experience it for myself and B, like because there are transformative elements to your first Burn. Like there were things that I could not know without attending that event for the first time.
I got back from that Burn and immediately went to a workshop where I met Lori Paul for the first time and she gave a talk on transformative experience. And as I’m sitting there listening to her describe her framework for transformative experience, I was thinking, “Huh, this would be really relevant for understanding what goes on at Burning Man and other transformational mass gatherings.”
So I went up to her after her talk. I said that I had just gotten back from Burning Man and I wanna study transformative experience, and she let me know that she was involved with an initiative through the Templeton Foundation where they were going to fund research on transformative experience. And so the stars aligned really well.
I put together a grant proposal with Alek Chakroff, who is one of our collaborators. We started the process. Now I don’t know if I would have gone down this path of research necessarily had I known how long it would take, and how onerous the process would be, but of course, in hindsight, I’m really, really glad we did this, and Daniel really made heroic efforts with… The data that this project generated was just vast, and there were so many different questions we could ask of this data.
Daniel, maybe you could say a little more about just the process of organizing and analyzing the data and finding the ways in which we could test our central questions with this really rich set of measures that we had from our participants.
DANIEL: I too, when you say the idea out loud, you say, “Oh, we’re gonna go to, you know, maybe half a dozen events. We’re gonna collect data. And you know, maybe we’ll do a follow up and then, you know, that’s all that we need.” Little did I know that…
So for every event you go to, there’s the onsite. If you’re lucky, you might be able to collect data before people go so that you can do kind of a pre-post change. And that was something that we were particularly fortunate with Burning Man specifically, because of the rich community around Burning Man and you could post on Facebook and things like that. But then there’s the event, then there’s the post event, and then there’s six months after that event.
So for each of those events, it becomes a multiplier. Now you have 15 different surveys that you’re working with. Then there’s the effort of collecting data at this virtual burn. There’s the effort of validating. You have a measure of monetary generosity, but how you correlate that with generosity with regards to giving time, for example, or willingness to spend time helping others.
So there’s a huge amount of moving pieces, and that grows exponentially more complicated as you add each additional piece. Yeah, it was a huge learning curve. I think Molly is in the same boat that neither of us had ever conducted a project anything like this before in terms of the complexity of the field. And you learn a lot of lessons, but you always learn those lessons a little bit too late. Then you’re sort of like, “Oh, I really wish I’d done it this way,” over and over and over again.
DANIEL: And so my life would’ve been just infinitely easier if I had only thought to do this like a day or two before.
STUART: That sounds so Burning Man. We call it building the plane while flying it.
MOLLY: Absolutely. There’s also the fact that, you know, we do most of our research with computers now, but of course you can’t take computers out to the playa, so we printed out these paper and pencil surveys to give out to people, which you then have to like guard with your life as you’re traveling back from playa to where your home base is.
There was one occasion in which we discovered the night before data collection that there was a typo in one of the questions. Do you remember that?
MOLLY: We discover one of the question, which is a critical question for just connecting the data we have with the representativeness of the population, was about whether you had voted in the past four elections, and the question had been written in one year, and we recycled the question in the next year, but didn’t update the years of the past recent elections, and so the question didn’t make any sense.
And we discovered this the night before a data collection, and so we’re all just sitting in our camp, bass thumping in the background, updating by hand, like 500 surveys.
DANIEL: Sitting cross legged. Yeah. 500 surveys sitting in a tent. Just one at a time. “Okay. Change 2012 to 2016, 2012 to 2016, 2012, 2016.”
MOLLY: Yeah, so that was fun.
STUART: Well that sounds like a transformative experience right there. Back to a hunter gatherer collaboration, right?
DANIEL: That’s right. But I think, you know, despite all of the headaches, I will say that nothing quite beats the feeling of knowing that you are at Burning Man, combining the two, at least for me, my two favorite things in life: Burning Man and science, to be able to do those at the same exact time; I think for Molly, that was the same.
DANIEL: That was peak and nothing can replace it.
MOLLY: It was really special.
STUART: Daniel, had you been to Burning Man before this research?
DANIEL: Yeah. I went for the first time in 2014, so I’d gone two years before I learned of Molly’s research. Molly and I were connected I think originally at a cocktail party in Manhattan through my advisor J Van Beal.
MOLLY: But then we started talking about the research in a kiddy pool filled with books, on playa. Do you remember that conversation?
DANIEL: Absolutely. So that’s when we were like, “Oh, you’re going to the Burn this year? Okay, I’ll be there too. All right, so let’s connect on playa.” And I said, “Oh, I’ll help you, you know, I’ll help collect data with you that year.”
DANIEL: And then I do remember having a long conversation in that kiddy pool filled with books about how we were gonna, what the next steps of the project were gonna be.
And, Oh God, that was 2015. Here we are seven years later. Little did we know that it would be such a project, but one of those things that like, when you’re in the moment you’re like, “Damn, this is real, real hard.” But then afterwards you’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe I did that and I’m glad I did.”
STUART: Well, I always say a bad idea well executed is better than the opposite.
DANIEL: Right. I think this is a great idea, executed so-so.
STUART: So I know often research leads to, every answer leads to more questions.
STUART: What are you interested in maybe finding out? Or are you done with this, or is there anything that you’d like to maybe find out more about going forward?
MOLLY: I hope I’m not done. I mean, I have a bunch of questions that I would love to explore and follow up.
One build on a finding that came out in our data, which is that if anything, it looks like feelings of transformation are increasing in the months happening after the event. And this is consistent with past research showing that when you have a potentially transformative experience, its ultimate transformative potential often depends on integration with the rest of your life and thought process and introspection that you do, and the conversations that you have with other people in the aftermath of the event. Making meaning out of it. What is going on there? And we do have actually some narratives from participants telling us in their own words in more detail how the event has changed them. We’re gonna dive into that data pretty soon.
I’m also interested in the importance of community in lasting transformation, and I think that one thing that we didn’t really look at in this research? And so might be one reason why we didn’t see differences between the Burner events and other events, is because maybe one thing that’s perhaps really important for certain kinds of transformation is being able to connect with other people who have had similar experiences to you. There’s just so much potential in the Burner community, and I would love to learn more about where that potentiality lies, how could it be amplified, and what are the key elements of integrating what you learn at Burning Man into your own life?
On that note, my last big set of questions is… You know, it’s taken me eight years, I think, to really appreciate what my first Burn did for me. It was the first time I ever experienced a space that was not a normative space, not a space where there were expectations for how you dress, how you present yourself. And that’s really, really powerful, to be able to experience love and acceptance when you’re not following necessarily a set of rules that you think you have to follow, or impose on yourself about, you know, the way you look or present. That’s really beautiful and powerful, and I want to know more about what it is about anti-normative spaces that are transformative. I would love to explore that more.
STUART: Well I hope you keep pursuing that because those are super interesting questions to me too. Daniel, do you want to… Any hopes for the future or?
DANIEL: Yeah, Well, these things that Molly was mentioning, just to tack on to this, I think the form of self-expression that you get when there are no, when you do have this freedom to set the rules for yourself, from a personal standpoint, that was also, you know, one of the more transformative aspects of Burning Man was just to be able to have territories of your personality or of your values, that you can experiment with, and see what it’s like over on that side. And you learn important lessons that over time can get integrated back, and allows you to become a more whole and full, complete authentic self. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily something that I would want to study going forward, but certainly from a personal perspective that was something that was really powerful.
And Molly, you are also doing some additional research on transformative experiences in other domains, right?
MOLLY: That’s right. Yeah. We’re interested in how transformative experiences change the structure of how you see yourself. One set of studies that we’re planning right now is what happens when you become a parent for the first time, the way you see yourself, and also the way you feel about conformity to gender roles and …
One of the broader goals when we started this, and of course when you start a research project you have these lofty ambitions and then reality sets in and you realize you can only do a tiny fraction of what you set out to do, but one thing that we were thinking about is: What is it that causes transformative experience in the first place?
We’ve only really scratched the surface with this research. We were really only able to make conclusions about what are the correlates of transformative experiences. Given a transformative experience, what is the nature of that experience? How does that relate to generosity, cooperation, and so on. But the question remains: How do you have a transformative experience in the first place?
We have hypotheses about that, and there’s some parts of our data that support those hypotheses, but our study wasn’t really designed to get at “What is it about Burning Man in particular, or mass gatherings in general, or experiences that you might have on a particular kind of substance?” What is it that is generating these new pieces of knowledge that you didn’t have before and couldn’t anticipate, and how is it that they are changing your priorities, your preferences, your values?
STUART: Yeah. Is it just in that non-normative space? For myself, a lot of it is not being as bound to the expectations of others in society. You know, we swim in that water like fish, and we don’t even really notice they’re there until they’re gone. That’s my hypothesis on that.
Fatherhood definitely will change you. Right, Daniel?
DANIEL: It certainly will!
STUART: You’re a new dad, right?
DANIEL: I am, yeah. I have a three month old now, and yeah, that’s definitely been a transformative experience in and of itself.
STUART: Yeah. Sleep deprivation adds transformative experience, too, right?
DANIEL: Yeah, exactly. Not in all the ways that you would want, but certainly, yeah.
STUART: It’s true.
DANIEL: And really it’s every day, right? It’s witnessing another human going through a transformation on an almost daily basis. You can see these changes. That’s quite amazing and magical.
STUART: It’s a process, not an inflection point, right?
STUART: This has been a fabulous conversation. I want to thank you guys so much for joining us on the program. My guests have been social psychologists Molly Crockett from Yale, and Daniel Yudkin from University of Pennsylvania. You guys, thank you so much for coming on, ok?
MOLLY: Thank you so much.
DANIEL: Yay. Thank you, Stuart. So much fun.
STUART: All right, everybody. Burning Man Live is a non-normative production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man Project, which is a nonprofit by the way, and funded by the generous donations of people like you who put a dollar through the slot at donate.burningman.org.
Thanks to our senior producer and story editor Michael Vav, our producers kbot and Action Girl, the rest of our team, DJ Toil, our communications pros Deets and Kristy, and to all of you for listening and for telling a friend. Thanks very much. I’m Stuart Mangrum. Talk to you later.
MOLLY: Thanks so much.
DANIEL: Stuart. That was great. Lovely. And great questions.
STUART: Oh, thank you.
MOLLY: Absolutely. Super good.
STUART: It’s super fascinating work.
ANDIE: This is Andie Grace, Action Girl, from Burning Man’s Philosophical Center. Hey, did you attend Black Rock City in 2022? If so, Burning Man Project has a couple of ways that we ever so politely really, really insist that you participate, so you can reach out and be heard and help us hear you.
The first is the census. The Black Rock City Census has been collecting real actual nerdy data, like the beautiful people that they are, since 2002. And we, and they, and you, want you to be counted. Who goes to Burning Man? Well, this is really how you find out and reach statistically significant numbers of participants so that we can understand who we are, where we come from, and what we’re doing when we get there.
The census collects data in two phases. There’s a random sample on playa as people enter Black Rock City followed by an online survey, and the online survey is now open and will remain so until October 10th. We would really love it if you filled it out, and so would they, and you might even have fun too. You can find it at census.burnman.org.
And if you did participate in Black Rock City, 2022, you probably have some capital O opinions and feedback and ideas. The feedback loop to Burning Man Project is open and we’re waiting to hear from you. Complete this by October 15th to make sure your input is heard. That can be found at burningman.org/feedback-loop
Whether you’re a first time glitter bot, or a crusty old Burner like me; whether you volunteer, you worked there, you’re a kid, we really wanna hear from you about what you thought and what you saw, your ideas for the future and your own reflections. It matters so much. It’s been a part of our culture, and remember Burning Man and Black Rock City are a collaborative culture. We can’t do it without your ideas and without your input. And without you.
You can find those little URLs linked from the Burning Man homepage right meow at burningman.org. Thank you so much, and we’ll see you soon.