Research finds that attending festivals can make us better people

When was the last time you attended a mass gathering? Lollapalooza perhaps, or Burning Man? Did you come away from the event feeling more connected to other humans, or perhaps more willing to do good deeds? 

Kateri McRae, associate professor and head of DU’s Affective, Social and Cognitive (ASC) program in the Department of Psychology, contributed to a recent study that found attending such festivals can make us better people. She fielded some questions from the University of Denver Magazine about this research.  

How did you conduct the research?

The research was done mostly in person at mass gatherings like Burning Man, as well as some smaller ones called Latitude and Dirty Bird. Some of the research was done after the fact with online questionnaires, but while at the festival, people responded to questions—and some of them played some “games” that were actually mini-experiments to test for things like moral expansion and generosity.

Could you summarize the findings?

We showed, first of all, that people reported that attending these festivals was a transformative experience—more specifically, that they were transformed by feelings of universal connectedness and seeing people in a new light. We also found that the longer people were at the gatherings, the more they reported feeling transformed, and they reported still feeling that it was a transformative experience up to six months later. 

People were also more generous and willing to spend time doing a favor for people they didn’t know well—something psychologists often call moral expansion—[which] got stronger the longer they were there.

What should readers take away from these findings?

I think, especially after COVID-19 has prevented us from gathering with large numbers of people and traveling outside of our homes for so long, it’s timely to recognize that sometimes our lives are punctuated by experiences that transform us. These sorts of mass gatherings are one place where those sorts of transformations happen. And knowing that, recognizing a universal human experience—[like] including those we don’t know in our circle of [people] we’d be willing to do favors for—are just some of the ways that these gatherings might change us for the better.

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