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The Social Psychology of Burning Man

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Relaxing on a couch left thoughtfully for tired travelers. Photo: Julia Galef

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.

Serendipitously, behavioral economist Dan Ariely was at this year’s Burning Man and made an appearance at their TEDx conference to talk about why the gift economy works so well. There are two different frameworks people use to negotiate exchanges, he explained, the economic and the social. If we’re in economic mode, we’re willing to give away goods and services only if we get something we value in exchange. In social mode, we give goods and services because it’s socially expected of us. So if I ask you to help me push my car out of a ditch, you may well agree. But if I offer you $10 to help me push my car out of a ditch, you’ll likely think: Are you kidding? My time is worth much more than that. In other words, the mere act of putting a price tag on a good or a service bumps people from the social to the economic mode, and reduces their natural inclinations towards altruism and generosity.

So it seems that Burning Man has managed to create an entire city operating in the social framework rather than the economic one. We give each other goods and services not because we stand to gain, but because we want to be good citizens of Black Rock City. Of course, you could make the case that this isn’t “true” altruism, that our gifts are motivated by a desire to show off or to win social status. There’s surely some truth to that, but for this purpose, it doesn’t matter; people are still being motivated to help each other out and to create enormous value without any financial incentives, and without succumbing to the temptation to free ride on other people’s efforts.

But even if you count the Burning Man experiment a success, the tricky question is what, if anything, we should take away from it. Is there something the outside world should be learning from Black Rock City’s thriving gift economy? Unfortunately, I don’t think our experiment’s results are as extrapolatable as they might seem at first. I think it’s a mistake to interpret the Burning Man experience as a proof of concept that people can be conditioned, through social expectation, to be generous to total strangers. That’s because, although it’s true that the people who gave me food and massages and rides all week were technically strangers, they weren’t just any strangers. They were my fellow tribe members.

And Burning Man is unquestionably a tribe. It’s got its own lingo (everyone in attendance is a “burner,” and you’re supposed to greet new people with a hearty “Welcome home!”). It’s got its own customs, from the major (the burning of the Man) to the minor (hugging replaces handshakes). It’s got its own shared value system (open-mindedness, celebration, creativity, sustainability). It’s got its own uniforms – not technically, of course, but there is a very distinct Burning Man aesthetic roughly consisting of some combination of dreadlocks, goggles, body paint, wings, cross-dressing, tattoos, fur, glow sticks, and nudity. And most of all, it’s got its own out-group against which it defines itself: the rest of the world, which from the vantage point of Black Rock City looks awfully dull and uptight.

In other words, Burning Man is an in-group. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to the age-old, million-dollar question of how to get people to live together in harmony, fostering cooperation within an in-group has never been the hard part. Being in the same tribe, whether that’s an extended family or a particular culture, has always greased the wheels of cooperation. As a species that evolved in tribes, we humans are wired for that. 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.

Julia Galef About the Author: Julia Galef is a New York-based writer and public speaker covering science, rationality, philosophy and design. She serves on the board of directors of the New York City Skeptics, a non-profit organization promoting science education and critical thinking, and co-hosts their official podcast, Rationally Speaking. She has moderated panel discussions at The Amazing Meeting and the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, and gives frequent public lectures to organizations including the Center for Inquiry and the Secular Student Alliance. Julia received her B.A. in statistics from Columbia in 2005. She blogs at Measure of Doubt. Follow on Twitter @juliagalef.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 13 Comments

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  1. 1. Bytor 10:36 am 09/8/2011

    Rather than trying to foster inter-tribal cooperation, I’ve always seen the problem as “How do we increase the boundaries of our tribe?” instead. We’ve managed to go, in the last 50 thousand years, from small 100 person tribes to nations with hundreds of millions that people give their loyalty to. Things are not perfect as Québécois separatism in Canada and the Tea Party/Democrat divide in the USA show, but if we’ve made it this far I have optimism that we can become single global tribe.

    “People are people so why should it be that you and I get along so awfully.”

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  2. 2. athenademos 2:35 pm 09/8/2011

    thank you for the wonderful article, Julia. You truly captured the humanity of the event. I do want to point out that you did miss a BIG part of Burning Man. Its no longer just an event in the desert. It happens all year long. And through the regional network, BWB, Black Rock Solar, and BRAF we are fostering cooperation between different cultural groups.

    So your statement “And that’s a question about which Burning Man, all its wonderful qualities notwithstanding, is silent” is quite wrong. If you only look at the event in the desert you will only see one small part of BM. However if you speak to the 180 regional contacts in 112 cities in 21 countries, or visit the 20+ global Burners Without Borders programs, or travel to all the publicly placed art by the Black Rock Arts Foundation you will get a very different picture of what Burning Man truly is about.

    We are actively working to bridge the gap between all cultures within our local communities through artistic endeavors. It is the 10 principles that fuel our energies and the newly formed Burning Man Project that provides the foundation and support.

    From a socio anthropologic and psychological view point, what we are doing outside the desert is much more fascinating then what we do in the desert. If you are interested in learning more, I’d be happy to take you on a virtual tour.


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  3. 3. leo1973 2:36 pm 09/8/2011

    “And that’s a question about which Burning Man, all its wonderful qualities notwithstanding, is silent.” -The flaw in that statement is that “Burning Man” does not “do” anything, it’s not a top down event, in which rules get handed down to be followed, but it a “bottom up” set up in which participants (the writer included) get to build and implement whatever they see fit. If you were to not be “silent” anymore and propose how Burning Man can reach out to other tribes then you would be making a huge leap forward toward beginning the process you desire to see happen.
    That said, “Burners” at large has been reaching out to “other tribes” for quite a while now. “Burners Without Borders” has helped out during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath as well as other natural disasters. “Black Rock Solar” has donated full solar solutions to schools and other organizations. And most of the regional burner organizations tend to be active in their local communities, activities that are centered on the “gifting” principle.
    Great article either way. :)

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  4. 4. DrJay07 2:47 pm 09/9/2011

    xkcd on burning man

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  5. 5. philgoetz 12:10 am 09/11/2011

    I also just got back from burning man. The gifting economy sucks. What I wanted most was a shower. In a money economy, I could have gone to any of the thousands of friendly people with showers there and said, “I will give you $15 for a shower.” I would have gotten my shower, they would have gotten $15, and we would both be happy. Instead, I was smelly and unhappy, and they were $15 poorer. Nobody gifted me with a shower, because too many people wanted showers. Paradoxically, the more people who needed something, the less possible it was to gift it.

    Gifting is nice and fun for a few days at best. But you can’t go to a bar every day and expect them to keep giving you free drinks. Even if they’re willing to, it felt awkward for me. And if I wanted to drink and run, that was frowned on, because I wasn’t contributing to the social scene in the way I was secretly obligated to by having accepted their drink.

    Many of the bars got around this by asking patrons to commit random sexually suggestive acts with strangers “in exchange” for their drinks. I’d really rather give them money! And you can’t keep coming up with new cool things to give back to your bar. It just doesn’t work. Not even for one week in a city full of self-selected gifters.

    If gifting worked, it was in the big gifts: The installations, buildings, artworks, and art cars people put so much effort and creativity into at their own expense (except for the ones who were funded by BM with money from my $360 entrance ticket!) But is that any different than what people do ordinarily? Take a trip on the subway and look at the miles of art painted alongside the tracks, all free. That’s gifting.

    I don’t think Burning Man provides a specially gift-laden environment. I think we live in a gift-poor environment. If you sat on your porch and gave away cookies you had baked, you would get inundated with homeless people, sued by someone who happened to get sick after eating one, and fined by the health department.

    There have been real gifting economies. Tribes operate largely by gifting. Some northwest coast native American tribes had complex gifting traditions, like the potlatch. Other cultures have traditions of giving generous gifts to strangers, as do the Bedouins. But none of these are an indiscriminate “give everything to anybody at any time”.

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  6. 6. DrMercury 9:00 pm 09/11/2011

    A wonderfully insightful article! However, it’s not true that Burning Man has “nothing to say” on the subject of helping in-groups get along, and I’m a little surprised you missed it. Let me quote the first of the Ten Principles:

    “Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”

    I remember Vic Diesel, a campmate of mine from a few years ago, saying to me one evening at Burning Man, “Ya know, Merc, of all the Harvard neuroscientists I know, you’re my favorite.”

    “Thanks Vic! And of all the Harley biker dudes I know, you’re my favorite as well.”

    Neither of us was lying, of course, but neither of us knew any other neuroscientists or Harley bikers, either. In fact, it’s doubtful that we would have even spoken had we met in the default world, much less bonded over the course of several years.

    So Burning Man’s solution to the eternal conundrum of in-group versus out-group is to expand the in-group to include everyone. It may not be the ultimate solution, but it is a solution.

    After all, YOU went, no?

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  7. 7. Rio Gordon 8:23 pm 09/13/2011

    I read the thougthful replies to this AMAZING article about our gift economy but wanted to specifically address two items.

    I agree that we are a nationwide in-tribe that is oriented to the clique and maybe from the outside do not seem so far thinking in bridging different groups. However, if you attend over a long period, you may notice that there is no prerequisite for being wholeheartedly welcomed into our city, and that a large variety of art types, lifestyle choices, and economic levels are expressed in our strategic, purposeful experiment. In fact, the ten guidelines are specific points for allowing this kind of bridging. Additionally, as other commentors have noted, there are a variety of continued annual projects in ameliorating ignorance of the arts, poverty and crisis by our Members, and as a community, I believe we stand alone in offering this kind of connection and purpose.

    As to my second point, I wanted to reply directly to Phil Goetz, and apologize for your experience. I am sad to say that you truly did not receive the best of what the Burn has to offer. I would suggest that you may have been sticking to the outskirts a bit, and not connecting with core members of our large family. I think it is impossible that no-one could offer you a shower in a moment of need, and personally of thousands of people that would unflinchingly offer this resource despite the high demand. Please remember that many people are new to this style of receiving (including you it sounds like) and may not know how to navigate the sociology of true gifting. Remember, it is also completely natural and wonderful to voice your needs to a community of gift givers so that you get ‘gifted’ what your experience most needs. Without this prompt of openness and willingness to receive from you, there is no indication that the need is really there. It may surprise you but many Burners go the entire week without a formal shower, opting instead for spongebaths or a wipe down from a friend with Baby Wipes. However, many many people have shower set-ups and Rv’s with facilities and would be thrilled to gift you that exact refreshing awesome gift if only gently suggested or asked. In your failure to find what you need, were you truly putting your need into the collective. If you think so, I guess perhaps you were asking the wrong folks. Our Camp has a six headed shower facility with natural soap and shampoo, and a large evaporation / grey water collection area to mitigate impact to the playa, and showers are openly offered to friends and those in need. In hearing about your feeling at the bars, in which you express your discomfort at drinking many drinks for days without returning the energy in some way, I would suggest that it seems like you have a difficult time receiving in this environ. It truly is OK to go ahead and hang out and drink as much as you like, and receive if that is what you need, and in fact, as an act of artistic socialism, engages and uses the gift of the person who brought all the alcohol and facilities to operate a bar. When you feel that you have reached the zenith of your ability to take on and begin to feel moved to displace the energy, all that is required is any small effort to beautify, transform, elevate or add to the collective experience. Running on a single ice run, or helping to bag recyclables for one hour or giving your energy in a song or poem or just about anything will completely absolve you of this feeling of imbalance. That being said, while sexual favors are currency for some people, I feel that this is the minority, and there CERTAINLY is no compunction for you to behave or give this energy outside of your comfort level, and if someone suggests differently, they may be operating in the spirit of predation or manipulation…your Body is your Temple and you are free to do as you choose in a spirit of harmony and personal Truth…don’t for a minute think otherwise….

    All that aside, i hope you return and have a more positive experience becoming a Burner and getting the things you need as genuine and loving gifts…it does exist and happens hour after hour, day after day in our beautiful BRC! Aloha Nui


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  8. 8. philgoetz 3:40 pm 09/21/2011

    Rio Gordon – I had good experiences at Burning Man; my comments are specifically about the “gifting economy”. Gifting is a good community value, but a bad economy. It’s great to have a gifting tradition at Burning Man. I don’t know if I agree with the rigorous forbidding of all monetary transactions (other than those made with the Burning Man organization itself). It’s a novel experience for a week. But I definitely disagree with the self-righteous claim made by many burners that gifting is an experimental social innovation showing that communities can be better off without money.

    I went to the Barbie Death Camp, where they were giving free massages. Because they were free, many other people also wanted one. I waited an hour, then gave up and left for an event I wanted to participate in. The event organizers didn’t show up.

    If BDC had charged a little money for massages, then the people who wanted them most would have gotten them. If the second event had charged money, the organizers probably would have shown up for it.

    Since my event was not happening, I wandered until I came to Esplanade, and decided on the spot to visit the Man, even though I had run out of water. I walked out to the Man, and then decided to visit the Temple, because it looked like it was pretty close. It was not. It was just very big. I walked and walked, and had to stop frequently for dust storms; and by the time I got there I realized I was pretty damn thirsty.

    If people could sell things, somebody would be out there in the center of the playa selling bottles of water. Instead, I walked over a mile farther in the burning desert sun to get water. Probably I could have stopped people passing by and asked for water; but that would have violated the Burning Man code of radical self-reliance.

    (The three Burning Man ideals of gifting, environmental responsibility, and radical self-reliance, are often at odds with each other.)

    My Burning Man experience would have been more pleasant if I’d been able to wander around Burning Man all day, buying food wherever I happened to be when I was hungry, and possibly having some nice dinner conversation, rather than having to head back to camp twice a day to eat by myself in a tent. Not to mention that the environmental impact would probably have been much lower if we had a smaller number of well-designed kitchens making large amounts of food, rather than 10,000 individual propane stoves heating things packaged in individual servings. And the cost would have been trivial compared to the $1900 I spent to get to Burning Man, join a camp, and bring supplies. (Burning Man was the second-most expensive vacation I ever took.)

    The Burning Man committees make the resource-allocation decisions that are made by money in an ordinary economy. Who gets the campsites on Esplanade? Who gets art funding? Could people work this out by gifting?

    The wonderful power of money, compared to barter or gifting, to enable people to self-organize societies has been demonstrated so many times throughout history, that it is silly to float the idea that a gifting economy could compare to a money economy, in terms of enabling people to have a good life.

    If you lived in a gifting economy, and you took a one-week vacation to some radical experimental camp where they had this thing called “money”, I expect you would come back with glowing reports: “This ‘money’ thing is amazing! People can get what they want, quickly and reliably, and there’s so much less scarcity!”

    The “gifting economy” is not an economic experiment. It’s an exercise in which you take something you rely on away in order to learn other ways of doing the same thing. It’s like going to a party where people wear masks, or must communicate without talking, or turn out the lights. It can be enlightening. But it’s not an alternative model for society, and it doesn’t make the participants superior to everyone else.

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  9. 9. Pastor Steve 4:50 am 10/1/2011

    Hi Burning Man community! I was wondering as a Christian would I be able to join this event and share my faith? Freedom of expression seems to be allowed, in honesty will I receive the same welcoming experience? Philgoetz, I find your response to the economy of BM very inciteful. I wish to attend BM soon, and bring the radical love of Jesus Christ. I believe ultimately without laws we are doomed, because human nature can’t ultimately escape greed, envy, fits of rage, lack of self control, lust, and a whole laundry list of self centered genetic qualities. In BM, what happens when a crime occurs? Are you kicked out of the tribe? What happens when there are disagreements? These are the things I am very curious about. Please enlighten me.

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  10. 10. Pastor Steve 4:57 am 10/1/2011

    Rio you mentioned “wrong folks”. What does that mean? Sounds judgmental. Who is to say who has gotten it right or wrong? Does morality exist in an anarchy? You said that the “body is a temple”? What does that mean? Sounds like you are imposing your belief system. More important question would be does your moral framework come from you or an absolute truth.

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  11. 11. NekoG 12:21 am 10/19/2011

    Pastor Steve:
    You are welcome to share your Christian beliefs and value with the Burning Man community- many different faiths are there and do their own events. There are Friday night Shabbat services that had Shabbat dinners afterwards and there are Sunday morning Christian services- maybe you can host one such service and spread your message that way. Given the personal and spiritual nature of faith, however, I would not advise going camp-to-camp and preaching within the camps/spaces of others. Some people who are of differing faiths would not be so appreciative of such behavior- and will not be so warm and welcoming to you. Inviting people to your camp and your own space will offer you a chance to spread your message to an audience that will be more receptive to your message.

    To answer your other questions: BM is still in the US- there are still laws and there are still police. If someone drives a motor-vehicle drunk, they can be arrested and get a DUI. If someone sexually assaults or murders someone, they go to jail. There are also Black Rock Rangers- if there are disagreements, you can connect the Rangers to solve them. For the most part, disagreements in BM are easily settled between tribe members- in the time I was there, I did not see any violence or disputes. Most people just wanna hang out and enjoy each others’ company.

    In context with wrong folks- I believe after reading Rio’s post [were you truly putting your need into the collective. If you think so, I guess perhaps you were asking the wrong folks], wrong folks are those who either do not have showers to offer Phil or did not want to offer him a shower and right folks are those who possess a shower and the willingness to share it. It wasn’t a judgmental phrase- there is nothing wrong with not having a shower or not sharing it, but it just means that Phil did not find people how could have helped him. Kinda of like asking someone for direction when that person does not know the way- that’s the wrong person to ask.

    Body is a temple- its a belief that is held by many burners, including myself- the idea is that you should treat your body with love and care.

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  12. 12. quilliard 10:41 am 01/17/2012

    I have to disagree with the story. I personally did not have a good experience over all with Burning Man. I would not recommend it. Try Europe first if you haven’t gone. It will be cheaper too.

    Now I would like to state that I have not met everyone that calls themselves “Burners” but the ones I have met are very cliqueish. They are not inviting if you are different. If you disagree with them they are spiteful. A lot of these Burners talk about radical self reliance but then take a gang mentality against… what ever their whims are.

    I was told by so many people to go and when I did it turned my life into a nightmare. I had the displeasure of meeting several “Burners” before and after the event that caused me to come to my conclusions.

    While at the event I was told to “F*@!-off” a lot for saying “Hello”. Seriously. And when ever I wanted to talk about the “art” I was looked at like I was speaking an alien language.

    But on the other hand there are a lot of drugs, naked senior citizens, and rave music at the event. Plus you won’t get to sleep as it goes all night long and then “Artists” drive loud cars with big horns on them to keep everyone awake, all morning. They call them art cars, isn’t that silly. Then to add a little brainwashing into the mix, on the loud speakers, running regularly, is a voice that tells you to give away your things. Oh so funny, isn’t it.

    As for the Burning Man forum “Do as they say, not as they do.” Wow do these people get pissed if you play like they do. Now if you are looking to get into a “Slave Contract”, they advertise for that in some forms. I don’t like “Slavery”.

    Well that was just my opinion, based off my experiences.

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