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Study shows Burning Man festival attendees use emotionally healthy strategies

July 7, 2011—A new study from the University of Denver (DU) finds that people attending the Burning Man festival use healthier self-regulation strategies than when they're at home. During the festival a temporary city known as Black Rock City is set up 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 annual 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.

The study found attendees used reappraisal more often than when they're at home and a strategy called suppression less often at the festival than when they are at home. Suppression, which means someone doesn't show outwardly what they're feeling inside, is associated with negative affects like depression. It's 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," says Kateri McRae, assistant professor of Psychology at DU. "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.

Of the more than 47,000 people who attended the Burning Man Festival from Aug. 27 to Sept. 3 of 2007, the researchers looked at 2,558 participants. Researchers were a little surprised that people reported using reappraisal more frequently at Burning Man. Reappraisal is the use of thought to change the way you feel about a potentially emotional event. According to the study it's, "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, this increase in appraisal indicates that participants at the event show a healthier emotional regulation profile compared to when they're at home.

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