Harry Potter turned 34 on July 31, but the spell he’s casting on our children hasn’t aged a bit. In fact, new research shows that reading Harry Potter might even be making children kinder to minorities and less prejudiced.
That’s the conclusion of research published late last month in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. The researchers took a look at three separate papers to affirm this.
The first study of 34 Italian fifth-graders saw the subjects take a six-week course on the world of Harry Potter. Prior to beginning the course the students filled out a questionnaire on their perceptions of immigrants. The kids were then split into two groups which read the same passages in the book, however one group then discussed the themes of prejudice and bigotry in the book while the other group did not.
What’s interesting here is that the children in the discussion group showed markedly kinder attitudes toward immigrants in the second round of questions after reading the story samples — but only if they identified with lead character Harry Potter, suggesting that the effect is in some way tied to the protagonist’s strong defense of his friends. (As a side-note, I do wonder if researchers had quizzed children on the character of Hermione and how she approaches minorities, being a witch with non-magical parents and a supporter of the house elves, the researchers might have found the same effect?)
A second study but this time with 117 Italian high school students and focusing on LGBT people saw that when readers said they identified with Harry, they were more likely to have generally accepting attitudes toward LGBT people.
The third study that surveyed UK university students had a slightly different outcome. Identifying with Harry had no impact on a respondent’s view of refugees. However, if the respondents had less of an emotional connection to Voldemort they were more likely to have more favorable attitudes toward refugees — which isn’t that surprising given that Voldemort’s politics are decidedly Nazi-like.
What the researchers think is happening is that the books are essentially giving children and adults a lens through which to examine these issues that they might not otherwise have access to. In effect, the books are allowing them to see and empathize with the hurt that this prejudice can cause, for instance when Hermione is called a “mudblood” by Draco Malfoy, or the ill treatment and then emancipation of Dobby the house-elf via a well placed sock.
Taken on its own, this research might not be that convincing but actually it adds to a growing body of evidence that says reading fiction can in fact improve our attitudes to others. For instance, a study came out earlier this year that showed reading literary fiction correlates with lower levels of racism in adults.
Tying in with all this, a new book called “Harry Potter and the Millennials: Research Methods and the Politics of the Muggle Generation,” makes the very interesting claim that Barack Obama’s presidential win may in some small way come down to the Harry Potter effect. University of Vermont political science academic Professor Anthony Gierzynski believes that millennials, having come of age on the back of the successful series, may have still had those stories in mind and as a result were more likely to vote for the Democratic party over the Republican party, which was then and is now seen as excluding minorities such as immigrants, LGBT people, and also attacking women.
The researcher doesn’t appear to be saying that Obama owes his presidency to J K Rowling, but instead that millennials who read Harry Potter were probably more sensitive to the Democratic party’s messaging.
All this adds weight to the notion that perhaps those people who seek to ban books like Harry Potter might, in one respect, be right: books are potent tools for making us think and making us more empathetic. Books might not be magic but, as any book-lover can tell you, they feel pretty close.
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