Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

harry-potter-quidditch

Harry Potter. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

• July 29, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.

Sure, Harry Potter destroyed the evil Lord Voldemort. But, aside from making lots of money for book publishers and film studio/theme-park conglomerates, what has the wizard done for us lately?

In fact, he has been helping to reduce prejudice.

That’s the conclusion of research just published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. It finds that, among young people, reading J.K. Rowling’s book series—and, crucially, identifying with the lead character—can reduce bias toward stigmatized minority groups.

In two different studies, young Italians took note of “the positive attitudes and behaviors of Harry Potter toward stigmatized fantastic groups,” and this fantasy-world interaction apparently influenced their real-world attitudes.

Kids (with the help of a discussion leader for the youngest) were able to make the imaginative leap between Harry’s defense of “mudbloods” and the unfairness of bigotry toward immigrants and gays.

According to a research team led by Loris Vezzali of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, this suggests “reading the novels can potentially tackle actual prejudice reduction.”

Those who read and discussed Potter passages about prejudices showed “improved attitudes towards immigrants.” The researchers caution, however, that this welcome reaction only occurred among those who identified with the title character.

Bigotry, the researchers note, is a continuing theme in the series of phenomenally popular young-adult novels. Voldemort, who represents pure evil, makes arguments that have “rather obvious” parallels with Nazism, they write, noting that he believes all power should reside in “pure-blood” witches and wizards, as opposed to those born of one magical parent and one non-magical “muggle.”

In addition, Harry and his friends interact with various sub-human species such as elves and goblins, who regularly complain about being forced into subservient roles, not unlike blacks in apartheid South Africa. Harry “tries to understand them and appreciate their difficulties,” the researchers write.

The parallels may be obvious to adults, but do they connect with kids? The researchers conducted several studies to find out. The first featured 34 Italian fifth graders, who began by filling out a questionnaire assessing their attitudes toward immigrants.

For six weeks, they met weekly with a researcher in groups of five or six to discuss selected passages from the Harry Potter books. Half of the kids read, and talked about, sections that dealt directly with prejudice; the others focused on sections that discussed unrelated topics.

Afterwards, they again answered questions about their attitudes about immigrants, listed how many Harry Potter books or films they had seen, and revealed the extent to which they wanted to be like Harry.

The results: Those who read and discussed Potter passages about prejudices showed “improved attitudes towards immigrants.” The researchers caution, however, that this welcome reaction only occurred among those who identified with the title character.

The second study featured 117 Italian high school students. They were asked how many of the books they had read; whether they felt an emotional kinship with Harry (or, alternatively, Voldemort); and, in what they were told was a separate study, expressed their attitudes toward homosexuals.

The researchers found those who had read more of the books also had a more positive attitude toward gay people—but, again, only if they felt a personal connection to the title character.

A final study used a different age group (college students) in a different country (England) and assessed attitudes toward a different minority group (refugees). The results were also a bit different, as identification with Harry was not linked with lower levels of prejudice. (The researchers point out that Harry is less likely to be an effective role model to this older audience.)

However, as they looked more deeply, the researchers found the same dynamic at play; here, the key variable was the extent to which participants identified (or failed to identify) with Voldemort. They also discovered the same likely mechanism behind the prejudice reduction: The books’ ability to prompt readers to view society from the viewpoint of a disparaged minority.

“Harry Potter book reading was positively associated with perspective taking toward refugees only among those less identified with Voldemort,” they report. “Perspective taking, in turn, was associated with improved attitudes toward refugees.”

The study is consistent with research we reported on earlier this year, which found that reading literary fiction can reduce racism by helping readers identify with characters from diverse backgrounds. (For that reason, these researchers took overall book reading into account when analyzing their results; they found the Harry Potter books had an impact beyond that of reading in general.)

Of course, people who grow up with biased beliefs aren’t likely to read the type of story used in the earlier study, which focuses on a Muslim woman living in New York. But they may very well read a fantasy story like the Harry Potter novels, where such messages are effectively embedded in the middle of a gripping, imaginative storyline.

Perhaps arguments for open-mindedness are most effectively delivered underneath an invisibility cloak.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.