Academics and Research / News

Research focuses on psychology of Burning Man attendees

The Burning Man festival begins this week. At the festival, attendees gather to create a temporary city in the middle of the Nevada desert. Photo: Anthony Mayes

Kateri McRae, a DU assistant professor of psychology, is known as Variance when she attends Burning Man festivals in Nevada.

She’s been attending the festival since 2006 to study the people who attend. Her research shows that attendees use healthier strategies to change their emotions than when they’re at home.

For those unfamiliar with Burning Man, the annual festival attracts nearly 50,000 people who set up a temporary city known as Black Rock City on a dry lake bed in Nevada. Large-scale art projects (some that are built to be burned), and unconventional activities make up the week-long festival.

Participants are encouraged to practice “radical self-expression.” Some wear little or no clothing, decorate their bodies in paint or wear outrageous costumes. The city operates on a de-commercialized gift economy, meaning that no outside vendors sell goods or services during the event.

More specifically, McRae’s study looked at the way people use two methods of regulating their emotions, called “reappraisal” and “suppression” during the festival.

Research showed that attendees used reappraisal — the use of thought to change the way you feel about a potentially emotional event — more often at the festival than when they’re at home.

According to the study, reappraisal is “associated with greater well-being, fewer depressive symptoms, and better interpersonal functioning.”

McRae says many people use Burning Man as a spiritual ritual to gain perspective or reflect on their normal life, which is very consistent with the goals of reappraisal. Together with the decreased use of suppression, the increase in reappraisal indicates that participants show a healthier emotional regulation profile compared to home. 

Attendees use a strategy called suppression — not showing outwardly what one feels inside — less often at the festival than when they are at home.

Suppression is associated with negative effects such as depression. McRae says her study is the first time researchers have reported decreased suppression in a specific social context.

“Burning Man participants are encouraged to engage in radical self-expression, so it’s not surprising they use suppression less when they’re there,” McRae says. “It’s significant because their decreased use of suppression was specific, and not just due to less thoughtful, controlled behavior while attending this somewhat uninhibited event.”

McRae says this could be very important when considering how to encourage people to use suppression less frequently.

“It’s possible that some aspects of the event — the artistic expression, the temporary nature of the city, or the unique social structure — could be useful (whether part of the event or not) to encourage healthier emotional habits in those who over-use suppression,” she says.

Researchers looked at 2,558 participants of the more than 47,000 people who attended the 2007 Burning Man Festival. Participants filled out a paper questionnaire at the festival.

The research will be published in the November issue of Basic and Applied Social Psychology. Besides McRae, researchers include Megan Heller, an anthropology graduate student at UCLA, Oliver John, a psychology professor at the University of California-Berkeley and James Gross, a psychology professor at Stanford University.


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