Many attendees of gatherings like Burning Man report “transformative experiences”

Overview: Attendees at social gatherings like Burning Man, who report that the event was a transformative experience in their lives, say they feel more connected to all of humanity and more willing to help distant strangers.

Source: Yalea

Throughout history, mass gatherings such as collective rituals, ceremonies, and pilgrimages have created intense social bonds and feelings of unity in human societies.

But Yale psychologists questioned whether contemporary secular gatherings that emphasize creativity and community serve an even broader purpose.

The research team studied people’s subjective experiences and social behavior at secular mass gatherings, such as the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.

They found that people who reported transformative experiences at the meetings felt more connected to all of humanity and more willing to help distant strangers, the researchers report May 27 in the journal. Nature Communication.

“We’ve known for a long time that festivals, pilgrimages and ceremonies make people feel more connected to their own group,” said Daniel Yudkin, a postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper. “Here we show that experiences at secular mass gatherings also have the potential to push the boundaries of moral concern beyond one’s own group.”

The research team, led by MJ Crockett, an associate professor of psychology at Yale, conducted field studies of more than 1,200 people who attended multi-day mass gatherings in the United States and the United Kingdom: Burning Man, Burning Nest, Lightning in a Bottle, Dirty Bird, and Latitude , all events featuring art, music and self-expression.

The researchers set up stalls at the events to invite passers-by to ‘play Games for Science’. Those who agreed to participate were asked about their experiences at the events and their willingness to share resources with friends and strangers.

Overall, 63.2% of participants reported having transformative experiences so profound that they radically changed events, including a significant number of people who did not expect or wish to be transformed. (And yes, transformative experiences were more intense in the 28% of subjects who reported using psychedelics.)

People who reported transformative experiences also reported feeling more socially connected with all people, and with each day spent at these events, participants expanded their circle of generosity beyond family and friends to include distant strangers as well. Image is in the public domain

People who reported transformative experiences also reported feeling more socially connected with all people, and with each day spent at these events, participants expanded their circle of generosity beyond family and friends to include distant strangers as well.

They again contacted some of the original attendees as well as 2,000 people who had attended the event but had not been interviewed. The researchers found that transformative experiences and their prosocial feelings lasted for at least six months.

“The findings are an important reminder of what we’ve missed in years of pandemic isolation,” Yudkin said. “Powerful social experiences, or what the sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence’.”

Crockett concluded, “Transformative experiences help people transcend the boundaries of the self and connect with all of humanity — crucial qualities to cultivate as we work to end this pandemic and prevent future ones.”

Financing: The research was conducted as part of The Experience Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Denver and University of Bath in the United Kingdom contributed to the study.

About this news about psychology research

Author: Bess Connolly
Source: Yalea
Contact: Bess Connolly – Yalea
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original research: Open access.
“Prosocial correlates of transformative experiences in secular multi-day mass gatherings” by MJ Crockett et al. nature communication

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Abstract

Prosocial correlates of transformative experiences at secular multi-day mass gatherings

People have long sought experiences that transcend or change their sense of self. By weakening the boundaries between the self and others, such transformative experiences can lead to lasting changes in moral orientation.

Here we explored the psychological nature and prosocial correlates of transformative experiences by studying participants previously (n= 600), during (n= 1217), 0-4 weeks after (n= 1866), and 6 months after (n= 710) they attended several secular, multi-day mass gatherings in the US and UK.

Observations from 6 field studies and 22 5-year online follow-up studies showed that self-reported transformative experiences at mass gatherings were common, increased over time, and were characterized by feelings of universal belonging and new perceptions of others.

The participants’ circle of moral respect expanded every day on the spot – an effect mediated in part by transformative experiences and feelings of universal belonging. Generosity was remarkably high in all locations, but did not change over time.

Immediately and 6 months after attending the event, the self-reported transformative experience persisted and predicted both generosity (direct) and moral expansion (indirect).

These findings highlight the prosocial qualities of transformative experiences in secular mass gatherings and suggest that such experiences may be associated with lasting changes in moral orientation.

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