Research tip for Burning 365 days a year

"If you had three wishes that could be expressed in bacon form, what would they be?"
“If you had three wishes that could be expressed in bacon form, what would they be?”

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Those of us wondering how we can live the playa in our daily lives might want to review some research profiled in last week’s New York Times.

Many of us – especially those from low-touch, high privacy cultures (like, ahem, me) – assume that most of us are happiest when people are left alone in their zone of privacy:  don’t disturb people you don’t have a reason to talk to.  It’s a gesture of politeness and respect.  We’ve internalized that.

It usually makes people like me uncomfortable when others breach these rules, but the research conducted in Chicago by behavioral scientists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder suggests that our momentary discomfort might make us happier in the long run.

In return for a $5 gift card, the Times writes:

“(C)ommuters agreed to participate in a simple experiment during their train ride. One group was asked to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train that morning. Other people were told to follow standard commuter norms, keeping to themselves. By the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive experience than those who had sat in solitude.

If the idea of talking to a random seatmate fills you with dread, you’re not alone. When Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder asked other people in the same train station to predict how they would feel after talking to a stranger, the commuters thought their ride would be more pleasant if they sat on their own.”

And it’s not just the person who initiates who has a better time.

The benefits of connecting with others also turn out to be contagious. Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder found that when one person took the initiative to speak to another in a waiting room, both people reported having a more positive experience. Far from annoying people by violating their personal bubbles, reaching out to strangers may improve their day, too.

The conclusions Epley and Schroeder draw is that meeting strangers causes us to put on our “happy faces” – we tend to be on our best behavior when we meet someone new – and that this emphasis on positive emotions positively colors the way we feel after the encounter.

Possible, but I draw a different conclusion:  that Western society is atomizing, and all too many of us feel relatively alone in the world, and are pleased when someone is able to reach across the gulf between us and establishes even a trivial connection.

The fact that many of us are afraid of what we want doesn’t surprise me – I find most of us are afraid of what we want, that it’s a basic part of the human condition.  More specifically, however, we are more terrified of being left hanging – of reaching out and being left as isolated as one was before, only now humiliated – than we are of doing nothing.  So we do nothing.  Unless we’re offered a gift card.

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, one of the extraordinary things about Burning Man is the way in which it collapses the borders that keep us apart.  The “Gifting Economy,” Radical Self-Expression, Radical Inclusion, Communal Effort, Decommodification, the visceral experiences we have, the unexpected moments that flash like lightning  … these are all things that give us an excuse to reach out to each other …

… more than that, to reach out to each other honestly, and speak from the heart, if that’s what we choose to do, or from whatever other organ is guiding us that day …

… And connect in a deeply human way.  And many of us want that.  And most of us need that.

Not every experience, of course, can be The Man burning … or the Bureau of Needless Bureaucracy.  But if Epley and Schroeder and the many theorists whose shoulders they stand on are right (hello Rollo May, Abraham Maslow), then we don’t need to put on a big show to make the world a little more like Burning Man.  Or to bring that burning goodness into our own lives.

We just need to find ways to reach out to strangers.  It can be funny, heartfelt, amazing, gentle … however we choose to express ourselves, we just need to do it.

Or not, if that doesn’t speak to you, or it scares you too much, or your passion is in another area.  Not everyone wants to  be a Greeter, and that’s fine.  But if you’re looking something you can do to live the 10 Principles in your daily life, to make the rest of the world more like Burning Man … this is a good one, and the research says it works.

Welcome home.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

22 Comments on “Research tip for Burning 365 days a year

  • simon of the playa says:

    the playa is the only place i feel comfortable in my own skin.

    for me, it’s getting INTO my comfort zone.

    and thats why i TRY to burn year round.

    thanks caveat, this helps.

    Report comment

  • Al says:

    Great article.

    Next you should do one on people like me who don’t seem to know how to shut up when talking to strangers. blah blah blah, hey hey hey, baby baby baby (sorry that’s Led Zeplin:)-

    Report comment

  • I can have conversations with strangers; it’s easy mainly because it’s not personal. I’ve spoken on the radio and television, addressed audiences and all of it is easy.

    Personal connections are difficult, they can be uncomfortable.

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