I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series. One of the remarkable things about the character of Harry is his ability to identify with individuals who are oppressed. He rises in defence of muggle-born individuals and house elves. He bristles at talk of pure blood, even before he really knows what that means. The question then arises, if fiction can result in increased empathy, does Harry Potter, set in a fantasy world, improve attitudes toward stigmatized groups? Fortunately, Vezzali et al (2014) set out to answer this very question with elementary, high school, and university students.
In the first of the studies, the researchers selected passages from the books to discuss with groups of elementary aged children. One group discussed passages that related to prejudice, while the control group discussed passages that were unrelated to prejudice. In general, children who identified with Harry improved their attitudes towards individuals who were different from them in the real world. This study focused specifically on attitudes towards immigrants.
In study number two, the researchers had students respond to two questionnaires that, as far as they knew were unrelated to each other. The first was about Harry Potter (books and films), the second examined attitudes towards LGBTQ+. There was a significant correlation between reading Harry Potter books and positive attitudes towards individuals who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, so long as the individual identified with the character of Harry Potter. Because this study did not involve direct interaction with the text in relationship to the study it might have confounding variables. For example, perhaps people who read Harry Potter already have more positive attitudes towards LGBTQ+.
In the third study, undergraduate students, like the high school students in study two, completed two questionnaires for two studies they were told were unrelated. The first measured identification with Harry, reading/viewing of the books/movies generally, and overall reading and viewing. The second examined relations with the out-group, in this case refugees. Once more, they found that reading the books related to improved attitudes towards the out-group, the refugees. However, what made this study different, was that instead of this correlation being related to identifying with Harry, it was related to identifying less with Voldemort. In other words, the more you identify with Voldemort, the less positive your attitudes towards refugees.
What makes Harry Potter different than many other works of fiction that might have similar effects is that none of the groups are based in reality. As a consequence, the improved attitudes towards out-group individuals is not restricted to a single group which I might now have a better view of because I’ve learned more about them. The improved attitudes instead seem to be a result of an overall improvement in attitudes towards anyone who isn’t like me. Therefore, as we see in the three studies, attitudes about individuals from a number of different out-groups are improved.
If you’d like to think about Harry Potter from a different perspective I highly recommend the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. The hosts read each chapter with a different topic in mind including hope, love, white privilege, and many other topics.
Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2014). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(2), 105-121. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12279