The Social Psychology of Burning Man

(Cross-posted at Scientific American’s Guest Blog.)

I just finished shaking the last of the desert dust out of the bags I brought to this year’s Burning Man, an annual week-long event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that takes its name from the burning of a giant effigy at the end of the week.  According to popular perception, Burning Man is a non-stop rave thrown by a bunch of drugged-out naked hippies. That’s not entirely false, admittedly, but it’s only a small piece of the picture.

Burning Man is also a large-scale social experiment. The 50,000 people who converge on the desert each year create a temporary but legitimate city – roughly the size of Santa Cruz, CA or Flagstaff, AZ — with its own street grid, laws, and social mores. In the process, they attempt to do away with several of the most fundamental institutions underlying modern civilization. Clothing, for example, is optional at Burning Man, and many people opt out of it.

Money, on the other hand, is not optional: it’s explicitly banned. People exchange goods and services constantly, but money never changes hands, except in one specially designated central tent which sells coffee and tea. I’ve heard Burning Man sometimes described as a “barter economy,” but that’s not quite right. It’s more of a “gift economy,” in which people give strangers food, drinks, clothing, massages, bike repairs, rides back to camp, and more, all without any expectation of reciprocation. Many attendees also invest a great deal of their own time and money beforehand to make other people’s experiences at Burning Man more beautiful, interesting, and comfortable, setting up tents or couches for public use or crafting elaborate art installations out in the desert for others to discover.

Read the rest at Scientific American.

6 Responses to The Social Psychology of Burning Man

  1. Andrew T says:

    SciAm, niiice.

    It seems like in any tribe that large, there must be different subtribes. People have different interests, backgrounds, personalities, after all, which are shared with some and not with others. Which is not to say that Burning Man subcultures shouldn’t get along – quite the opposite in fact. You seem to analogize Burning Man and one party of a conflict, say, a political party. But what happens if we make Burning Man the American tribe (or the global tribe) and then ask how the analogous subtribes can get along as well as the Burning Man ones do? I don’t know, I’ve never attended, but maybe changing the scope of the comparison can tell us something.

  2. PCGuyIV says:

    I do understand what Andrew T is saying to some extent, but I am inclined to disagree. The inter-workings between the various sub-groups of the Burning-Man group do not necessarily correlate to the inter-workings between various sub-groups of a larger construct. There may be some correlation, but in the end, when you change groups, the dynamics of the subsets will differ.

    When you start to involve people who do not see eye-to-eye with the ideology of Burning Man, or possible are completely opposed to it, you need to look at other possibilities for getting people to “all just get along.”

    I would also hazard a guess that there are those within the Burning Man sub-culture who only see it as a nice break from normal life but would not remotely consider it as a permanent way doing things.

  3. Max says:

    Burners, ravers, hippies, punks, so many tribes of so-called nonconformists, each with its own uniform.

  4. Marc says:

    “No, the hard part has always been: How do we foster cooperation between different in-groups? And that’s a question about which Burning Man, all its wonderful qualities notwithstanding, is silent.”

    Nice article. Burning Man lasts 7 days. Everyone then goes back to whatever they were doing before and hopefully brings some of that magic with them.

    I’ve been burning with roughly the same 40 people for the last four years – I see 90% of them only on the playa – so yes it’s a tribe or in-group but for many a very ad hoc, temporary in-group. I bring back lots of energy and ideas for my non-Burning Man life and I can say over 8 years my cooperation, creativity and relationships with others have enjoyed overall improvement and awesomeness – most of that with non-Burning Man work, friends, in-groups, etc. I know I am not alone in this. I’m generally silent about this but there are Burner groups like Burners without Burners that are explicit, effective and far from silent in trying to foster cooperation between groups.


  5. I admit that I have never been to Burning Man, but I none the less disagree quite a bit with some of the claims about it being some kind of alternative “society” or the establishment of an economy that allows people to live without money or to realize a culture where gifts and trade are the basis of how goods and services are distributed.

    In reality, a true society could never operate in this capacity. It would rapidly break down because those who are altruistic would be punished and those who are greedy would be rewarded, this forcing people to be more greedy and then forcing them to be more restrictive with their property. It’s just not going to work to expect everyone to be selfless. It never has and never will.

    The thing about Burning Man is nobody comes there with the intention of living there. They are there basically for a vacation and they know it’s for a limited time.

    Nobody brings all their property to Burning Man. Sure, people give away some of their stuff for free, but only within the very narrow context of the event. Try going up to someone at Burning Man and asking them to use their stuff or have a service done for free. They’ll probably say yes. Then ask them for that beyond the context of burning man – I’m pretty sure they’ll say no.

    For example:

    “Can I please use your vehicle for transportation until I decide I don’t need it for that anymore?”
    “My bike? Okay. Sure!”
    “No, not that bike. I mean your car. The one that is parked back at the airport long-term lot where you live. I want to go there, I want to take your car and I want to use it for as long as I please. I also want to stay in your house as long as I please.”
    “What? Are you crazy? NO!”

    Similarly, people may be willing to live without any security for their property at burning man, but only the property they have with them. What they do at Burning Man does not generally put any risk on their retirement fund or other property.

    And ultimately, people are not willing to give up their property and money to make others happy or to show how much they love doing it. That’s not why it happens. People want to experience something different and to have a fun time with others. They give away favors and property because it’s the price they pay for that. They’re willing to do it, because it’s a small enough portion of their overall property.

    A person could say “I’m going to burning man and I’m bringing my bike, my tent and my artwork. I know there is a good chance they’ll get stolen or destroyed, but that’s okay. I like burning man, it’s a unique experience and it’s worth it to me.”

    It’s exactly the same as someone saying “I’m going to the race track. I’m taking some money to bet. I know I’ll lose most of it, but that’s okay with me. I like watching the horses and I find the betting process fun to participate in. So I’m fine spending a little bit on it.”

    The thing about burning man is that they really are not doing away with any of the institutions of society at all! They are just pretending that they are, but they have not in the slightest bit.

    Everyone there is still going to be participating in those institutions. They still have their bank accounts, their deeds to real estate, their insurance policies, their health coverage. It’s all still there and they’re (wisely) unwilling to live without it. They’re just not using it for a few days.

    What does that prove? It’s easy to not use these institutions continually. Hell, I haven’t gotten any money from the bank in more than a day. I haven’t made any purchases in hours. I could easily go the rest of the day without doing so.

    Yeah, they have tried trying to build societies in this manner before. There was a craze for communes in the 1960’s. Free love, no property, lots of naked people and all that stuff. Nearly all of them folded completely. Some of them ended rather badly and a few even violently. The ones that survived had to modify these ideals quite a bit.

    You want to snap someone right back to reality and illustrate how imaginary most of this society is? Just ask the following “Hi, may I please have your ATM card and pin number.”

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