Gifts in the desert: the psychology of Burning Man

Posted on October 28, 2014

Photo: flickr

What happens to groups of people in harsh physical environments, away from all of the trappings of modern civilization? Tales of shipwrecks, adventurers and post-apocalyptic worlds explore this question, and usually these stories do not end well (recall the descent into anarchy and violence in Lord of the Flies). The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned that outside of civilized society, humans are nasty brutes who would sooner step on another's face than share scarce resources.

But what happens at Burning Man might surprise even the cynics. Somehow this environment brings out the very best aspects of human nature. There, kindness flourishes and generosity is widespread. How does this happen? Research on the psychology of human altruism offers some clues.

One of the most unique features of Burning Man, relative to other large festivals, is its economy. Nothing is for sale, with the exception of ice and coffee. Everything else is given freely as gifts. Walking around the city, you might receive: a neck massage; a shot of absinthe; your portrait, taken by a professional photographer; a snow cone; a pancake breakfast; a pair of vintage sunglasses; a pot of crème brulée; a yoga lesson.

Subtracting money from social interactions could be a key contributor to the spirit of generosity that permeates the atmosphere. An influential set of studies showed that even just thinking about money makes people less likely to help others and less interested in spending time with others. Subsequent research found that university students were more likely to cheat after seeing 7000 dollar bills than after seeing only 24. It seems that being around money brings out the worst in us.

So what exactly is it about money that dampens our taste for generosity? One possibility is that when we participate in financial transactions, we follow different social rules than when we share our resources communally. Drawing from anthropology research, scientists James Heyman and Dan Ariely proposed that there are two types of human transactions. In monetary markets, people pay money for goods and services: imagine you own a restaurant, and your customers pay you for their meals. Meanwhile, in social markets people help and share with one another out of kindness: imagine inviting a close friend to your house for dinner.

Because these two different markets exist, people will sometimes paradoxically expend more effort for no payment at all (in a social market) than for a small payment (in a monetary market). For example, you might agree to help a friend move house as a personal favour, but if he offered to pay you £1 for your services, you would be insulted and refuse.

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Source material from The Guardian