Burning Your Way to Happiness

Burning Man is the subject of all kinds of different academic studies. This latest one is quite staggering in its scope – they surveyed more than 16,000 Burners, a study that took over 4 years and involved 8 different colleges from around the world. Their conclusion? Well, it’s sort of confusing. But it seems like, people who go to Burning Man experience positive and negative emotions more intensely, and stay happier when they’re home.

Inquisition FinalResearch published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Emotion Science in July found that an individual’s social and cultural environment influenced how they controlled their emotional responses.

“I think the most striking thing that this study demonstrates is that emotion regulation can change due to sociocultural context far more quickly than previously reported,” Kateri McRae of the University of Denver, the lead author, told PsyPost. “Most previous research focuses on culture as defined by long-standing shared values and norms (and compare groups like those living on mainland China to those living in the U.S.), and the fact that we see similar changes when people attend an event for a week is very cool.”

“To me, that indicates that how we regulate our emotions in accordance with social norms is a very dynamic process. Another way to think about it is that ‘culture’ might be something that is much more local and changeable than we previously thought.”

The study was led by Dr Kateri McRae, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver, but it also involved Stanford, Columbia University of New York and UCLA’s Departments of Anthropology and Psychology. The paper was co-authored by Sara Snyder, Megan Heller, and Daniel Lumian.  It was edited by Vera Shuman from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and peer-reviewed by Katherine Chen at the University of New York, and Mary Burleson at Arizona State. So we have 8 different college departments, anthropologists as well as psychologists, studying Burning Man for 4 years. Is that 32 free trips to Burning Man, all in the name of (pseudo-)science?

The paper is available for free at the National Institutes for Health web site. Not sure if that means we the taxpayers funded it.

They claim to have found “the paradox of Burning Man”: that Burners are more open and less inhibited at Burning Man, while also being more self-conscious. “Am I having a good time?”, “am I not having a good time?”, are thought about more frequently and intensely at Burning Man than in the Default world. 

Woman-at-Burning-Man-by-Christopher-Michel“What first drew me to study emotion regulation at Burning Man is that Burning Man has very explicit values (the ten principles of Burning Man) and one of them is radical self-expression,” McRae explained. “I thought it would be really interesting to see how that explicit value impacted the types of emotion regulation that people use when they’re there. And indeed, we find that people inhibit their emotional expression less often when they’re at Burning Man than typically at home.”

For their study, the researchers surveyed 16,227 individuals at Burning Man over the course of four years to investigate two emotional regulation strategies, expressive suppression and cognitive reappraisal.

Going to Burning Man made individuals less likely to inhibit the expression of both positive and negative emotions. Those at Burning Man were more open about their emotions in general, but were more likely to feel uninhibited about expressing positive emotions rather than negative ones. McRae and her colleagues found decreases in the suppression of positive emotion were considerably stronger than the decreases in the suppression of negative emotion.

“What was most surprising to us was that this decreased inhibition was not global,” McRae told PsyPost. “In other words, people aren’t ‘letting loose’ in every sense when they are at Burning Man (which is one stereotype that some people hold about the event). In fact, people use an emotion regulation strategy called reappraisal MORE often when they’re there.”

“So the paradox of Burning Man is that people are more open, less inhibited when expressing their emotions, but also more thoughtful in terms of reframing, reconsidering or reevaluating their emotions (which is what reappraisal entails).”

The researchers found a general increase in cognitive reappraisal. But there was no difference between the reappraisal of positive and negative emotions.

So, at one of the world’s biggest parties, people seem to be having a better time than normal, and letting their hair down and expressing it. Woo-hoo! Burning Man has a magical formula that can make the world a better place!

One slight flaw I can see in this study: did they ask the participants if they took more or less drugs at Burning Man, than they normally would in the Default World. Either recreational, or pharmaceutical. Because, if thousands of people are getting high, and reporting that their mood is elevated, that just possibly might not be directly attributable to BMOrg, and possibly just might be attributable to whatever supply from which they’re getting high. Just sayin’.

In a previous paper on the same topic (!) in 2011, Dr Kateri acknowledged the magic chocolate-dipped elephant in the room:

need lsdIt is important to note that the unique environment at Burning Man may lead to participants being in an altered state of mind, due to sleep deprivation, the severity of the physical environment, the consumption of mind-altering substances, or the novelty of the event. We guarded against that concern by administering the survey in a centralized location that is calm, well trafficked, family friendly, and monitored frequently byresearch staff (and therefore not a likely destination forthose seeking an altered experience).

Errr, you mean Center Camp? No freaks there. No novelty there. Nobody tripping balls there.

For their next paper, the authors should get taxpayers or their college to fund them going to all the other major parties in the world, and seeing if people there seem to be getting high and having a good time. I suspect the results will be positive. Possibly, though, they might show that there is nothing particularly unique psychologically about Burning Man. Perhaps other than that the harsh desert conditions and darktards increase peoples’ unhappiness. So if they want to prove that Burning Man makes people unhappy, I guess the science could support it – but any fool can see people party because they like to have fun, and everyone at Burning Man is having fun. I’d prefer to be a fool having fun that a miserable scientist who’s paper asserts that they’re right.

They used a bit of a trick on Burners, to make sure they had sufficient literacy and sobriety, to participate in such a prestigious questionnaire:

participants were only included if they responded correctly to an item designed to ensure conscientious responding. This item read: “If you are reading this form carefully, please leave the response options below blank, but draw a circle around the first instance of the word “carefully” in this sentence.” Only participants who correctly omitted the response and circled the correct word were included.

If Burners can survive in the desert while high, they can probably fill out a form while high.

This is not, by any means, the first attempt to psycho-analyze Burning Man. In 2011, Dr Harvey Milkman investigated Burning Man, and saw dead people. The Doctor’s conclusion:

Burning Man is not just a wild party in the middle of the Black Rock Desert. There are deeper meanings. The Burning Manexperience is a pathway to self-discovery and change. For many it has become a way of life, an elixir from post-modern suffering – a reprieve from lonelinessconsumerism, alienation,fear, and meaningless gadgetry. Money is non-existent, as the transfer of goods and services is based on a gift economy. Mundane living is the default dimension. Burning Man is not a permanent place, nor is it intended to be. The notion of unending habitation has been the bane of most utopian groups – people simply do not stay. Burning Man is different; it is a state of mind. It is a rite of passage through the portals of creativity, self-reliance, kindness, and connection to community.

Dr Milkman noticed that the party made him happier:

When I asked to help with one of his every-night dinners: “Just clear out of my way,” said Tom, as he hastened to present my favorite beer.

I had never before been so graciously looked after by someone I did not yet know.

What was billed in my mind as “the best party I’d ever attend,” turned out to be so. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Germaine Greer, Ram Dass, Salvador Dali, Mama Cass, The Road Warriors, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Timothy Leary, Federico Fellini, Jim Morrison, and their avatars, were all there – to name just a few.

I felt the buzz of hominid openness and the joy of spontaneous conversation. Almost from the get-go, I was smiling… no, grinning… noticeably happier than usual. I was savoring a precious glimpse at the hidden worlds of fantasy and longing of the fascinating personas in my midst. 

Some parade as biblical figures

The desert was alive with mindful disinhibition. Some dressed as pirates, others ballerinas, there were men in skirts, and eloquently gowned women with parasols; others adorned themselves with animal ears whilst sporting matching tails. Some took on the accoutrements of biblical icons. A multitude paraded nearly naked in the noonday sun. There was also the Critical Tits Parade, aka Boobs on Bikes, featuring 1000 topless women gleefully cycling in unabashed solidarity.

The big grin is being around so many compatriots behaving a bit naughty, creative and nice – all at once!

So, let me get this straight…a few free beers, someone cooking dinner for you, and 1000 topless women – makes you happier? Wow. Psychology is some amazing stuff.

Let’s test this out:

golden boobiesblue boobiesthree boobiesboobs and bikesCritical_Tits_Bike_Ride_2008_by_NVMarkboobs and angel wingsheineken-tree



2 comments on “Burning Your Way to Happiness

  1. Pingback: How burning mans culture alters you emotionally | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

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