What happens to groups of people in harsh physical environments, away from all of the trappings of modern civilization? Tales of shipwrecks, adventurers and post-apocalyptic worlds explore this question, and usually these stories do not end well (recall the descent into anarchy and violence in Lord of the Flies). The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned that outside of civilized society, humans are nasty brutes who would sooner step on another’s face than share scarce resources.
Burning Man is a massive weeklong public arts festival held every August in Black Rock City, Nevada. You might imagine this event, where 65,000 people converge in a blazing desert devoid of water, food or electricity, would be a recipe for disaster. But what happens at Burning Man might surprise even the cynics. Somehow this environment brings out the very best aspects of human nature. There, kindness flourishes and generosity is widespread. How does this happen? Research on the psychology of human altruism offers some clues.
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