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The Social Psychology of Burning Man, Part 1: Trust

The Qualiast

The Social Psychology of Burning Man, Part 1: Trust

Daniel Yudkin

Once upon a time, a tiny dot floating in space exploded like a watermelon struck by a sledgehammer, sprayed matter and energy in all directions, and gave birth to the universe.

That was fourteen billion years ago, and in the meantime, far from slowing down and reversing direction, this expansion has, if anything, picked up the pace, as evidenced by the Doppler “red shift” of distant stars. This fact has led astronomers to postulate the existence of a mysterious force called “dark energy” tearing space apart at its seams.

As it is with the universe, so can it also feel with human relationships. Connections once intimate can, with the passage of time, come to seem increasingly distant, as though a wedge were being driven between us and the people we love.

So maybe it’s no wonder that when human beings gather in the desert to cast off the bad habits of daily life, one of the first things they do is give each other a giant hug.

At Burning Man, volunteers stand at the gates to receive the seventy thousand people who descend upon this remote location north of Reno, Nevada. To each person they offer a greeting (“Welcome home”) and an embrace.

It’s an age-old tradition at this festival and one with special meaning, because this hug provides a gateway to a different world.  

In this world, gone is all that social awkwardness and hesitation, and in its place is a strange, new, unfamiliar feeling: trust.

At Burning Man, I give you a waffle, you give her a back massage. She, in turn, gives someone else a friendly spank, and three days later he helps me fix my bike. This trust goes from one person to the next to the next, in a massive system of extended generosity.

This isn’t the mere trust of a waiter believing I’ll stay put long enough to pay my bill. It’s a cycle that extends to almost karmic levels.  

Research in social psychology suggests that trust is one of those fascinating human emotions that serves as its own self-fulfilling prophesy. Recall those summer camp trust falls: when someone places their life in our hands, we rise to the occasion.

But trust isn’t just a bonding exercise. Indeed, trust is an essential component of even the most trivial of social interactions.

When we offer someone a smile, for example, we are making a what’s called a “bid.” A bid is a gesture, an offering—one we hope will be returned, but could just as easily be met with a scoff or a frown.

When bids are met with rejection, it erodes people’s trust. This, in turn, prevents them from weaving the strands of mutual respect into the fabric of a supportive community.

But the environment within the gates of Burning Man allows these trust-strands to grow into an intricate web.

The effect can be overwhelming, and it is not uncommon to see people, mere days into the festival, curled on top of each other like sleeping puppies, their faces content and peaceful, from the cumulative effect of multiple sleepless nights and illicit drugs, to be sure, but also, perhaps, from the surprising and reassuring sensation of trusting others.

This reinforcing cycle is brought to its pinnacle on the final day of the festival, when pyrotechnicians get to live out their secret dream of setting alight the giant man at the city’s epicenter.

After sunset, everyone forms wide circle around the man to watch him go up in flames. The event is accompanied by a fireworks display to rival the Fourth of July.

But there’s more to this gathering than mere pyrotechnics. As the fire leaps stories into the sky, if you turn around, it’s possible to make out an ancient image.

Gathered around the man are countless faces illuminated in reddish light. 

We’ve been warming ourselves by this fire for thousands of years. It appeals to something deep and basic in our nature. Not only has that fire provided us with safety and security. It has served as a point of congregation. The faces we can see in this circle are the faces of people in the clan. They're the faces of people we can trust. 

This, then, is a red-shift of a different kind. It is a red-shift not of coming apart, as is the case with the stars in the universe, but of coming together. Flouting apparently universal laws, we humans have created, with our intelligence and ingenuity, a way strengthen our bonds of connection. 

To counteract those forces that threaten to pull us apart and cement our trust in others, it seems that all that we really need to do is light a fire, and watch it together.