People often describe transformative experiences at religious and secular mass gatherings. Often these experiences lead to feelings of belonging to others. A new study published in Nature Communications involved participants of secular mass gatherings like Burning Man, which found that prosocial behaviors and moral expansion are related transformative experiences.
For a long time, people have sought out creative experiences that alter their sense of self. These can take place at large gatherings such as festivals, raves, collective rituals, or sporting events. One aspect of these experiences is the individual's connection to the group.
The researchers were interested in whether or not transformative experiences at secular mass gatherings contributed to a long-term change in morality.
Daniel A. Yudkin and colleagues used a lab-in-the-field method to collect data from participants as they attended one of six secular multi-day mass gatherings across five field locations in the United States and the United Kingdom. We define secular mass gatherings as events with a total attendance of more than fifty people and no explicitly religious component. Previous research has demonstrated that self-transcendent experiences are not the focus of this study.
Researchers recruited participants by sending email updates to attendees prior to attendance, putting a booth on site at each event, and after attendance via email sent to onsite participants. All participants completed tests of generosity (a money donation game), moral expansion, and use of psychoactive substances.
Transforming experiences were not related to participant gender, age, or income. However, poor educational attainment and decreased alcohol consumption were associated with more transformative experiences. Further, transformative experience was linked with improved mood and use of psychedelic substances.
Participants noted that they felt socially connected to something larger and perceiving new insights about others in ways that were less frequent.
Overall, this study indicates that the most prevalent characteristics of transformative experiences were socially focused (e.g., toward others and the community). In contrast, psychedelic substance use most strongly predicted changes to perceptions of reality and oneself, suggesting that transformative experiences elicited by psychedelics may differ in several key ways from those resulting from mass gathering participation alone.
Results demonstrate that generosity was not linked to transformative experience for the prosocial measures. It may be worthwhile to point out that the baseline generosity in this sample was significantly higher (62%) than what is typically seen in previous studies (28%). Moral expansion was positively associated with feelings of universal connection, which was positively associated with transformative experience.
The subjective sensation of having a transformative experience persists over time, according to follow-up studies. Participants donated 67% immediately after the event and 65% in the 6-month follow-up
The authors highlight several limitations to this work, including the self-selection nature of the participant selection process and the inclusion of only one type of setting where transformative experiences can occur. These include listening to music, practicing meditation, and immersing oneself in nature. Given the wide range of settings, it remains unclear exactly which aspects of mass gathering attendance cause transformative experiences.
Daniel A. Yudkin, Annayah M. B. Prosser, Kateri McRae, Aleksandr Chakroff, and M. J. Crockett contributed to the paper, Prosocial correlates of transformative experiences at secular multi-day mass gatherings.