Study shows how Burning Man’s unique culture alters your emotional regulation

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Woman at Burning Man by Christopher MichelNo need for psychedelic substances: The cultural milieu at the week-long annual art festival known as Burning Man is enough to alter your mind.

Research 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 Burning Man event is based on radical self-expression and radical self-reliance. Attendees, known as “Burners,” gather at a barren desert in northern Nevada and collectively construct a temporary city. Burners often wear elaborate costumes, drive around in funky “mutant” vehicles and build large artistic structures. They participate in a wholly gift-based economy. The social and cultural environment of Burning Man is unique, to say the least.

“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.

McRae acknowledge her study had some caveats.

“The biggest one is that we asked people to indicate how often they used different emotion regulation strategies at Burning Man and typically at home, but we asked both questions while people were at Burning Man,” she explained. “Relying on retrospective (not in the moment) responding can often mean that people answer what they think they do at home, rather than what they actually do.

“Because their answers on average defied normal stereotypes, I think that it’s unlikely that this is a huge problem with the study, but we’re definitely trying to figure out way to get participants to respond both typically at home, while not at Burning Man, and then again when at Burning Man. It’s hard to do that without getting identifying information like names or phone numbers or email addresses, but we have some work-arounds that we’re considering!”

The study was co-authored by Sara A. Snyder, S. Megan Heller, and Daniel S. Lumian.

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40 Comments

    • Broke from Burning on

      Why? What does that have to do with emotional regulation? Or are you just angry it costs more than you think it should? Suppress those negative emotions. Burningman costs as much as a regular vacation. Not everyone can afford a vacation. That’s a simple fact of life. Not everyone can go to burningman. It doesn’t change the point if the article or the study.

      • Do people who can afford to attend have an increased ability to regulate their emotions?

        • Broke from Burning on

          No idea…you’d have to ask the authors. Or better yet, run your own study and publish your results.

          • Shelly Duell on

            It’s taken me 3 years to be able to attend. I do not consider myself “wealthy.” I have also read and heard of many called “sparkle ponies,” who do not have money but rather ride on the coat tails of others. They also sell “low income tickets” every year for those who’s applications fit them into such category. So idk. How about the idea that a culture has been established and followed through with, and people who have happy people around them tend to be happy. If everyone around you is displaying happiness, cheer, surprise and love for one another, you’re more likely to feel positive emotions. When you smile, you physically release endorphins. These are just my virgin thoughts. Perhaps I’ll have more to say when I return from my first trip this year.

          • Anyone can go to Burning Man. It just depends on how much you want it and how much you don;t mind roughing it. Find a Project or camp that appeals to you and your passions – something you would like to support – and offer to work on it with them. I have gotten comped (FREE) tickets on several occasions by contributing my labor to a project or camp. I have gotten in completely free and had all my food covered in exchange for my work. You can borrow a tent or sleeping bag from a friend before hand if you don’t have them. People are very generous. It is important to be self-sufficient but when I have been traveling from afar and it was inconvenient for me to carry a lot of gear – other friends would bring a tent and sleeping bag in their car for me and I would meet them on playa. I have also bought the lowest scale ticket which was around $200 (a steal considering it is 8 days of round the clock 24-7 nonstop 5square miles of infinite possibilities for mind and heart expansion) and then just camped in a single tent with a sleeping bag – no amenities. My only other cost was a small contribution for gas for the ride I hitched in from SF and a case of water, and 2 grocery bags filled with “bird food” (dried fruits and nuts, granola, tasty-bites – anything that didn’t need to be refrigerated, cooked or prepared in any way) – this allowed for no cooking (no need for fuel), no cleaning (no need for excessive amounts of water), no cooler (no need to buy ice) – and with a package of wet wipes and some lotion you can get clean daily and take care of your body without needing to worry about greywater removal and fancy shower mechanisms. Anything can be managed for a week. So – if you don’t mind roughing it for an amazing end result and you can scrape up the cost of a ticket over the year – then you can do burning man. And it is definitely worth it.

        • would anyone make the argument that in general wealthier people are better able to regulate their emotions??

        • That would be a good control condition. As would looking at some of the cheaper “regional” burns.

    • $60/day to support the City……..then of course your own food and shelter….which you’d have to pay for anyway )’(

    • Cuchulainn of the Playa on

      There are thousands of low income ticket to Burning Man, and thousands more earn a ticket through volunteering. I spend, maybe, $500 total for a 9 day vacation there. Ticket + gas + food. That is all. So there are a lot of people there who are not wealthy and spend what little they can to just be there, in a utopia for many, for a week. As far as emotional regulation goes there you are more than free to express the negative ones. That’s why we have a Thunderdome. It’s just that Burning Man makes most people feel genuinely happy and free to express love towards others without judgment.

  1. happycaaaaarnt on

    so…people regulate themselves to show positive emotions more often. They aren’t this free to express negative emotions. I find that strangely discomforting.. It’s not that they ARE happier, they just feel that they have to show that they are in a certain environment? Lucky it’s only a week, or else those repressed negative emotions could become volatile!

    • I agree that repressed negative emotions aren’t good for your health or well-being. However I feel like I had a different take on this article.

      From the below sentences, I got that both positive and negative emotions were less inhibited, but only positive emotions were uninhibited more than average.

      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.

      • Learn to Read on

        I think you guys aren’t reading. The article clearly states that according to the study, the Burning Man environment seems to encourage those involved to regulate their emotions through cognitive reappraisal as opposed to suppression. Both of these are forms of inhibition, but one is likely healthier than the other. Through this reappraisal negative emotions are filtered out and the mind’s perception of the stimulus causing the negative reaction is examined and adjusted until negative emotions are not necessary. Someone bumps into you, at first you are upset, but after thinking about it you realize you are overreacting to what was likely an accident. You have reappraised your cognition of the situation and have no need for recourse. Naturally these reappraisals filter out more negative emotions than positive ones.

        In short, learn to read. ;)

        • I would be interesting in knowing more of this theory you have- can you direct me [LINKS?] (a lay person) and Not a BM attendant – perhaps an APPRAISAL or reappraisal in my own isolated world.. would be of use.? THX!

    • Eamon Jungle Wyss on

      You come across as an academic – having good knowledge of the pieces but no experience of how they actually function together. Sounds like the best thing for you might be to go to Burningman yourself and test your own ‘theory’

      • happycaaaaarnt on

        I’ve been to many, many similar festivals all over the world. I believe that peer pressure to act positively -because ‘positive thinking’ is fashionably hip in at these festivals- is the dominant catalyst of behavioural change in this environment. There’s nothing wrong with a little happiness; but too much positive thinking leads to self delusion. It decreases your awareness of what is happening around you by putting you in a ‘happy bubble’ which may feel good for a while, but any kind of limitation on your awareness is really not helping with actual personal growth.

        • Eamon Jungle Wyss on

          I completely agree with you there. The festivals and parties were more chaotic and punk-like, where we could express negative emotions safely, without the peer-group look of disapproval. Then came the more hippy element which soften the field, and a line was crossed into a more ‘happy happy’ vibe where negative emotions get suppressed. It just seemed your comment was reading a little more into things than was present in the article above. Thanks for re-defining your view.

          • Were things being sold at these “festivals and parties”? If so, there is no comparison.

            Don’t worry. There is PLENTY of “negative-emotion expression” at Burning Man. You can’t go a day without seeing a couple publicly breaking up in flaming fashion. ;)

        • There ARE no similar festivals. I have been to many festivals world-over, and none of them are in anyway similar to Burning Man.

          Also, you are projecting assumptions onto what was said in the article. People regulate themselves more in both directions. This means that they are being more honest with themselves. This can ONLY be a positive thing.

          They also feel more able to express themselves in both directions, but EVEN more open to express positive emotions. So people are being more honest with each other, as well, which is also a positive move.
          They are even more likely to be honest about positive emotions, which fosters the atmosphere of acceptance that allows that honesty of expression in the first place. Decreasing Awareness of what is happening around you is certainly not implied by the article, nor is repressing negativity.

  2. It’s so awesome to see this paper! I’ve taken surveys at burningman. I wonder if there is any relation between this study and the consensus.

  3. Firefly Sparks on

    Im poor, and I save money throughout the year so I can attend. Last year I got a low income ticket yay! What im saying is that burners come from all different walks of life and social statuses and Burning Man is that one place where you can forget all of that for a week and you can just be you without the worry or care of “societies interpretation of you.” This is your answer…. us burners are happier because Burning Man teaches us how to let go of how we are percieved so we can just be us ♥

  4. Yeah cool and all, but you really have to be privileged to afford this experience. Even with a low income ticket, the price of attending burning man makes it way out of reach of the people who need this experience the most

    • Cuchulainn of the Playa on

      That’s not necessary true. If you really want to go, for little or no money, then with enough effort you will. Networking and volunteering with art projects and large camps can find one with a ride and a ticket. A low income ticket is $190. I wouldn’t say you need to be “privileged” to afford that, nor does that make it “way out of reach.” The way to go for free is to volunteer. I will agree that it takes a lot more effort for a poorer person to make it there and that the community could use more balance in that direction. Who needs this experience the most though is subjective. My wife and I made it to Burning Man last year while we were both unemployed and managed to have a wedding there too. We got all we needed for our $100 wedding from fellow Burners who wanted to participate in our wedding, we qualified for low income tickets at $190 which I paid for with change I collected for years, our food came from food stamps, and gas for our ride, about $180, was from a little money my wife saved from a few under the table odd jobs throughout the year. Where there is a will, there is a way. Luckily, this year we both have jobs and because of our volunteering at the event in 2012, we got early arrival passes so we can be there for almost two weeks. Become a valuable enough person within the Burning Man community and you will always have a ticket and ride.

    • Last year I picked up a burner on the way in with a sign asking for a “miracle ticket”. I had an extra on hand, and brought him on board for $70. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Not to mention all the regional burn events which, in my experience, hold much of the same “cultural milieu” as described in the article. If you haven’t been before, I wouldn’t be so quick to judge what is and isn’t possible or plausible.

    • Think I would respond “highly” to that – (i realize it is a pun after i typed it) But the positive vibes must be a great thing.. ?

  5. This is pretty interesting.. There is one thing about this that worries me.. they don’t seem to be considering that the situation at Burning Man is Unique, and not indicative of a more ‘ordinary’ cultural experience. That it might be speaking to things which underlie our matrix, rather than being merely a cultural experience. That BRC has culture(s) cannot be denied, however I don’t believe that the ordinary metrics apply.

  6. So all these comments about COST of getting there – YES I see that as huge part of why I will never get there – and knew little if any about BM before 3 weeks ago, BUT researching the nature of it and situation led me to feel that Attending BM would be the best thing that could ever happen to me on an emotional/psychological level – sooner than later… as I feel like life has become Hell on earth – while still having a roof over my head etc.. BUT look; Radical SELF DEPENDENCE or reliance! (bring EVERYTHING) you need to survive the environment – maybe 5-10 years ago i could have done that. physically and now since 2012 economically..NO!

    yes- its a Dream ‘vacation’ like one dude said below- “not everyone can afford a vacation” that does become the POINT – at some big picture..

    Money – it takes money and physically being able to endure. my larger point is I am thrilled for those who get to go. and am accepting the more realistic terms of suicide is more likely than a trip to be RADICAL SELF EXPRESSION for a week and cleanse ones soul of pollution from other people and sense of oppression and no sight of a door of that room… i love that people can say there is a way to get there with little cash… great for you…. but i’m not walking in your under the table job world –

    But will acknowledge this article verifies exactly what i FELT when i began to read about Burning Man a few weeks back and can see why Black Rock City is called HOME and those who can’t wait to get back each year – I envy them – I only wish i had know about this in 1995 – it would have saved my life from all this walking dead that I AM and sure dump sh_t comments on me; say mean stuff thats what the internet is for – but remember to enjoy a moment of sunshine out on the Playa one afternoon – cause i will not be there and nor here for much longer;

    i should have sent my $3 to the man with Human light Suit / Photographer – but i figure he will make it there – even if his kickstarter thing didnt get funded?! right?
    its ALWAYS ABOUT THE MONEY.. and gallons of water in this case.
    BURNING MAN is unique and i have never been there and Yet can FEEL its truth.

    • you should attend a regional burning man event in your area. There are regional burns as well as regional burner parties where you can meet and interact with other burners. This is a low cost way for you to have the same experience. Burning Man is global now, not just in Nevada one week of the year.

      • Thank You, Dandelion. I did not research enough to know about regional gatherings. I did consider making a symbolic circle in my yard and map out the Playa/city – at least as in form i found through photos of last few years. sort of like a tribute to the event and go out each day/night and make some symbolic act or meditation.. sounds wacky but; do with what ya got, is what i thought. Thanks Again..

  7. Benjamin Jorgens on

    The cost of burning man has nothing to do with this… Why are comment threads always full of random dissent that has no bearing on the content of the damn article?! RTFA!

    • @Benji: But it does… Mental Health Therapy (and those who also are given high dollar psychopharma drugs) are All seeking the benefit or more enlightened MIND and harmony within oneself. THAT COSTS!!! – I’ve been through having meds pushed on me (Yee-ha the mid 1990s Psych Drug revolution! ) this article – if you want to call it “Proof”in the smaller sense of research Proof – provides a validation for the effect I knew BM might give one who is ABLE to Attend – either physically or economically able. ITS ALWAYS about the Money no matter how we seek radical change to our mental/social entrapment(s). I hold enough life regret from trusting doctors and people from 1996 to give a 1 pound of pain to 1000 people a day…. When I first saw the Burning man info and researched it for 2 weeks more or less (and keep checking in on it ) and this article validated the hint of what I felt strongly about – but yes I realized I could Not go (MAYBE with Unlimited funds) I could overcome some basic/moderate problematic physical limitations and that alone would put me in ‘virgin Burner’ land… open to what it has to offer.. that’s all I want. But real life is not fair. I see that – albeit a bit late. If pointing out ‘Cost’ of attaining transformation one longs for and can not reach – via a more healthy and constructive powerful way than > community, social sanctioned, grist mills of pointless cognitive therapy; at this point in MY life – then my written opinion– reaching out in a moment of agreement (as per your:RTFA) and A sad acknowledgement that i can Not see a future where I can go to BM – then Fine call it ‘Random Dissent…’ or tell me a doctor and insurance company that will straight away send me to this beacon of spiritual and emotional renewal out in the wastelands!

      • there are Many burns around the country that are not as long as BM or as expensive, most “local” burns have tickets in the 60-100$ range and only last for a weekend not 7+days. if your “research” has not revealed this then do better research. if you are listening to the doctors and the insurance companies you have not done ANY research worth doing.

        • I went to my local burn a month ago and it cost me 100$ for the ticket and about 75$ in “gear” and “food” (already had my tent cost about 40$) so its less than a wellness visit to most doctors. if you REALLY want to go hit up Facebook msg boards about the burns and you will find a LOT of helpful people, you can find a Theme camp to camp with and that takes off a lot of the expense as pooling resources helps a great deal. don’t complain ASK FOR HELP FROM THE COMMUNITY, we are a helpful bunch I promise.

          I’ve been to 5 burns and I have yet to go to Blackrock ( the orig BM) so its not as impossible as you may think.