People often claim to undergo transformative experiences at mass gatherings, both religious and secular. Often these experiences lead to feelings of connectedness with others. New research published in Nature Communications recruited attendees of secular mass gatherings like Burning Man and found that prosocial behaviors and moral expansion are related transformative experiences.
People have been seeking transformative experiences that change their sense of self for a long time. Experiences like these can arise at mass gatherings like festivals, raves, collective rituals, or sporting events. An aspect of these experiences is a sense of fusion the individual has with the group, or “group identity fusion.”
For the current study, the researchers were interested in the psychological qualities of transformative experiences at secular mass gatherings and whether these experiences related to long-lasting change in morality.
“To do this, we adopted a lab-in-the-field approach in which we collected data from participants as they attended one of six secular multi-day mass gatherings across five field sites in the US and the UK.,” explained study author Daniel A. Yudkin and colleagues. “We define secular mass gatherings as events with a total attendance greater than five hundred and no explicitly religious component. We focused on secular events in order to ensure that any effects observed were not the result of explicit reference to the divine, which past research has shown to foster self-transcendent experiences but is not the focus of this investigation.”
Researchers recruited participants by sending newsletters to attendees of the events before attendance, hosting a booth onsite at each event, and after attendance using emails sent to onsite participants. All participants completed measures of generosity (a money donation game), moral expansion, and use of psychoactive substances.
Results indicate that transformative experiences were not related to participant gender, age, or income. However, lower educational attainment and lower consumption of alcohol was associated with more transformative experiences. Further, transformative experience was associated with better mood and use of psychedelic substances.
In terms of qualities of transformative experiences, participants frequently reported feeling socially connected to something larger and perceiving new things about others. The least frequent reported were feelings of losing one’s self and feeling like a different person.
“Overall, this analysis suggests that the most prevalent attributes of transformative experiences were socially oriented (e.g., toward others and the community). In contrast, psychedelic substance use most strongly predicted changes to perceptions of reality and oneself, suggesting that transformative experiences elicited by psychedelics may differ in certain key respects from those arising from mass gathering participation alone.”
For the prosocial measures, results show that generosity was not related to transformative experience. It might be worth noting though that the baseline generosity in this sample was considerably higher (62%) than what is typically observed in previous studies (28%). Moral expansion was positively associated with feelings of universal connectedness, which was positively associated with transformative experience.
Results on the follow-up measures show that the subjective sense of having a transformative experience persists over time. When completing an online version of the money donation generosity task, participants donated 67% immediately after the event and 65% in the 6-month follow-up. Unlike the onsite data, transformative experience was associated with generosity in the 6-month follow up.
The authors do cite some limitations to this work including the self-selection nature of the participant recruitment and the inclusion of only one type of setting where transformative experience can occur. “This is by no means the only environment where such experiences can occur. Apart from psychedelic experiences, these include interacting with literature and music, practicing meditation, or immersing oneself in nature. Given the diversity of these settings, it remains unclear exactly which aspects of mass gathering attendance cause transformative experiences.”
The study, “Prosocial correlates of transformative experiences at secular multi-day mass gatherings“, was authored by Daniel A. Yudkin, Annayah M. B. Prosser, S. Megan Heller, Kateri McRae, Aleksandr Chakroff, and M. J. Crockett.