If you’ve always thought there was something wrong with people who refuse to read a single “Harry Potter” book, now you have scientific proof.
A new paper in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology confirms what we’ve always suspected: “Potter” fans are better people. Researchers found that kids who read the books and identify with Harry are more open-minded and less likely to demonstrate prejudice.
The study included fifth-graders, high-schoolers and university students from Italy and the UK.
Students who identified with Harry (versus You-Know-Who) had improved attitudes toward “stigmatized groups,” including immigrants, refugees and the LGBTQ community.
The Study’s Results
A group of 34 Italian fifth-graders filled out a questionnaire about immigrants. Then they split into two groups that met for six weeks. One group discussed passages from the books dealing with themes like bigotry and prejudice. The other group discussed neutral passages. At the end, students in the first group who identified with Harry showed “improved attitudes towards immigrants.”
The 117 high-schoolers from Italy were asked to give their opinion on homosexuality. Then, in what they thought was a separate study, they said how many of the “Harry Potter” books they had read and whether they identified with the main character. Students who identified with Harry were more likely to demonstrate empathy and have a positive perception of LGBTQ people.
In an interesting twist, adults’ capacity for empathy apparently has less to do with loving Harry than with hating his nemesis, Voldemort. College students in the UK who “disidentified” with Voldemort had more improved attitudes toward immigrants.
None of this should come as a surprise to fans of the books, though. J.K. Rowling clearly meant for readers to find parallels — both good and bad — between Harry’s world and their own.
Voldemort’s emphasis on “pure-blood” wizard families echoes the Nazis’ classification of Jewish families by bloodlines and other acts of genocide. Meanwhile, wealthy families treat house-elves as slaves, who must obey their “masters” unless they gain their freedom. Wizards are often portrayed as seeing themselves as superior to other magical beings, such as centaurs and goblins.
The word “Mudblood” is another example. This derogatory term for witches and wizards from Muggle families appears throughout the books, often used by followers of the Dark Lord. It’s an obvious stand-in for many real slurs against racial, ethnic, religious or other groups that exist in our world.
The ways that Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore and other characters respond to these examples of hatred and prejudice offer important lessons for young readers. They criticize the emphasis on bloodlines, treat other magical species as equals and reject offensive words like Mudblood. For example, Hermione’s S.P.E.W. campaign to empower house elves did not gain much traction, but she persisted in trying to improve their working conditions. Hermione herself was a victim of prejudice, as she had no wizarding parents — but she constantly proved that ability had nothing to do with blood.
These actions, as well as many other examples, help teach kids that hatred, bigotry and discrimination are dangerous and wrong.
Reading Develops Empathy
It doesn’t necessarily have to be Harry Potter, though. Child development experts have long known that reading helps children put themselves in other people’s shoes. A 2013 study from researchers at The New School in New York found that literary fiction, in particular, had a positive effect on helping kids develop emotional intelligence. That’s because literary fiction focuses on psychology and relationships in a realistic way.
One of the authors of the study, David Kidd, told Scientific American about characters in literary fiction, “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” Kidd said. Because the reader must then imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues, it can lead to greater understanding and awareness of human thought.
Sounds like a library trip is in order!