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Sunday, July 17, 2022

Prosocial correlates of transformative experiences at secular multi-day mass gatherings

Yudkin, D.A., Prosser, A.M.B., Heller, S.M. et al. 
Nat Commun 13, 2600 (2022).


Humans have long sought experiences that transcend or change their sense of self. By weakening boundaries between the self and others, such transformative experiences may lead to enduring changes in moral orientation. Here we investigated the psychological nature and prosocial correlates of transformative experiences by studying participants before (n = 600), during (n = 1217), 0–4 weeks after (n = 1866), and 6 months after (n = 710) they attended a variety of secular, multi-day mass gatherings in the US and UK. Observations at 6 field studies and 22 online followup studies spanning 5 years showed that self-reported transformative experiences at mass gatherings were common, increased over time, and were characterized by feelings of universal connectedness and new perceptions of others. Participants’ circle of moral regard expanded with every passing day onsite—an effect partially mediated by transformative experience and feelings of universal connectedness. Generosity was remarkably high across sites but did not change over time. Immediately and 6 months following event attendance, self-reported transformative experience persisted and predicted both generosity (directly) and moral expansion (indirectly). These findings highlight the prosocial qualities of transformative experiences at secular mass gatherings and suggest such experiences may be associated with lasting changes in moral orientation.


Stories of profound personal transformation have long captured the human imagination, yet such experiences are difficult to recreate in the laboratory. Here, we adopted a lab-in-the-field approach to study transformative experiences as they were occurring at several secular multiday mass gatherings in the US and UK. Self-reports of such experiences at these events were common, increased over time, and endured at least six months following attendance. The most prevalent qualities of transformative experience were prosocial in nature and were correlated with increased feelings of connectedness between the self and all human beings. Consistent with these reports, participants showed an expanded moral circle with every passing day, an effect partially mediated by feelings of universal connectedness and transformative experience. Meanwhile, we observed high levels of generosity at mass gatherings, but generosity onsite did not increase over time and was unrelated to the transformative experience. These effects were robust to controlling for expectations and desires for transformative experience as well as substance use, and were consistent across mass gatherings with market economies as well as gift economies. In the weeks and months following event attendance, transformative experience directly predicted generosity and indirectly predicted moral expansion via universal connectedness.

Our results build upon and extend past work on collective effervescence and prosocial behavior, which suggests that mass gatherings played a functional role in human evolution by increasing people’s willingness to make personal sacrifices on behalf of the group. Some research suggests such prosocial behavior is psychologically mediated by experiences of personal transformation, yet thus far research on the prosocial correlates of transformative experiences has mainly relied upon retrospective approaches, which are subject to the limitations of autobiographical memory. Here, in order to better understand how such experiences may be associated with prosocial change, we examined the qualities of transformative experiences as they occurred, and measured their association with prosocial behavior. We found that reports of such experiences did indeed increase over time, and were correlated with an expanded circle of moral regard. This shows not only that such experiences are associated with changes in moral orientation, but also that, in certain contexts at least, such changes may be characterized by feelings of universal moral inclusion.