Despite the Criminal Justice and Public Law Act (1994), which attempted to put an end to the spate of new, unregulated raves that were popping up around the M25 and Manchester a quarter of a century ago, rave culture is very much alive and kicking. Throughout lockdown, ‘free parties’ and underground raves have been taking place across the UK and mainland Europe (Mahmood, 2021). In a world of increasing physical distance (first through social media, then via COVID-19 related restrictions), rave culture appears to be growing. Humankind has a deep-seated need to engage in bonding group rituals (Durkheim, 1912; Atran & Heinrich, 2010). The 2020’s rave generation is being drawn in to not just a subculture, but to perhaps the only space left available in which to partake in those rituals we so crave. This year, the combination of covid-related restrictions and the repercussions of years of austerity has activated our evolved need to turn to others in the face of adversity (Dezecache, 2015; Dezecache et al., 2020). During the pandemic, and following years of austerity, unemployment and mental health issues have soared among young people. Rave is a reflection of this – temporarily remedying their imposed isolation.
At its heart, the rave phenomenon - young people gathering to dance all night - is millennia old (Winkelman, 2010). Hedonistic revel and revolt are not the primary goal for ravers; feeling a connection with other people, being part of something bigger than oneself is the motivation (Gauthier, 2004). In other cultural worlds, this kind of deep and meaningful connection might be met by religion, by one’s career, or maybe by one’s own family (Turner & Oakes, 1985). Combinations of all of these social connections and more are also possible. However, with the ongoing ambiguities of national identity perpetuated by Brexit, and the stifling of community life due to the pandemic, rave is filling this gap in social meaning for many young people. Young people may not be going to church on a Sunday (even if they were allowed to), but they’re making up for it on Saturday night by receiving the sacred communion of religious ecstasy on the dancefloor until the sun comes up.
However, now, more than ever, rave is costly. While hosts may charge their guests £5 to £30+, the social cost is arguably far higher. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is a big concern, especially in potentially unventilated venues that operate for 12+ hours. As with other illegal events, raves pose risks that health and safety inspectors would weep over (for an extreme example, consider the ‘rave cave’ that took place in an Oslo bunker, giving its ravers carbon monoxide poisoning). Relatedly, drug dealing and associated drug casualties at raves are also a concern, though numbers are relatively low, especially when compared to alcohol-related injuries and deaths.
These stories generate sensationalised media headlines, much as rule breaking among religious groups and indeed the general population has (Drury and Reicher, 2021). Rule breaking actually appears to occur in the minority of the population, around 10% (Fancourt et al., 2020; Duffy & Aldington, 2020). We predict that rule breaking concerning communal rituals (raves and large religious rituals) will be no greater for ravers and religious people than general rule breaking is in the wider population.
Even though it may be a minority who break the rules, it is still imperative that we understand their motives. One possible explanation for these risky behaviours comes from evolutionary Life History Theory. All mammals have evolved, species-specific slower or faster life history strategies in relation to what is optimal given their environment. All animals have to allocate finite resources between survival, growth, reproduction, or parenting (Stearns 2004, Chisholm 1993). For instance, a mouse adopts a fast life history strategy having several large litters, with relatively low investment in each, whereas an elephant tends to produce one infant per pregnancy and provides high levels of (maternal) investment, which is considered a slow strategy. In humans, species-specific life history strategies are slow but there is individual, intraspecies variation between the timing of life history events that develops from environmental unpredictability, whereby we can classify individuals as being slower or faster compared to others (Figueredo et al. 2005).
Faster life history strategies in humans may involve earlier sexual debut, having children at younger age, risk taking, and drug use (e.g., Ellis et al. 2012). These strategies are often associated with high stress, unpredictable environments (such as a ghetto or war-torn region) where the risk of drying before reproducing is increased, but have also been found in more benign environments where relative perception of environmental risk is high (Johns 2011). Slower strategies would include having fewer children later in life, but high levels of parental investment (e.g. spending a lot of time on their educational activities) and favoring parental effort over mating effort - these strategies are associated with safe, secure environments with more chance of reaching old age.
Life history strategies have not previously been linked to rave culture or shared ritual attendance more broadly (but see Shaver and Sosis 2014). However, religiosity and spirituality have been associated, in general, to longer-term decision making (Slyke and Wasemiller 2017, Holder et al. 2000). Opportunities to meet with peers at mass events are important for mating opportunities, enhancement of social capital, as well as feelings of belonging and well-being – benefits that are likely of particular import to those in unpredictable environments. Additionally, participation in mass rituals signals commitment to the group, and well as pro-sociality; and being an enthusiastic participant is hard to fake (Henrich 2009). Where long-term survival is less likely and the future uncertain, it makes sense to engage in high-risk, high reward activities, especially if they enhance the potential for mating success (e.g. Mishra et al 2017) and sustained group ties (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2014; Whitehouse et al., 2017). Similarly, those sustained group ties, i.e. identity fusion, may be a driving force for continued participation in group rituals (Swann et al., 2009, 2012).
Here we test the possibility that raves constitute a mass, ritual gathering for young people - one that may be particularly important to young people with faster life history trajectories. We also control for this by investigating a legal, control group of religious people who regularly participate in religious activities which share some of the same characteristics and benefits as rave (St John, 2004). Ordinarily the major world religions are linked to slower LHS (Baumard & Chevallier, 2015; Moon et al., 2015; Wu et al., 2020). Within the pandemic environment, however, some religious rituals are now more suited to faster LHS, i.e. religious activities that have continued to attract large crowds such as within London’s Hasidic Jewish community that currently has the highest rate of COVID-19 in the world (Farley & Symonds, 2021). Often, the ‘need’ for these large religious rituals is expressed as a need for the communal, much as rave is.