In the magical world of Harry Potter, witches and wizards can fly on broomsticks, become invisible, and make things levitate. Wingardium leviosa!
What if we could wave a wand to end bigotry? That's still a bit of a stretch at this point, but new research suggests that Harry Potter may be able to work some real-world magic along these lines. It suggests that reading Harry Potter books may curb intolerance of gay people and immigrants.
"Harry Potter empathizes with characters from stigmatized categories, tries to understand their sufferings and to act towards social equality," the study's leader, psychologist Dr. Loris Vezzali, told The Huffington Post in an email. "So, I and my colleagues think that empathic feelings are the key factor driving prejudice reduction."
The finding may come as welcome news to the books' author, J.K. Rowling, who has called the series "a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry." Rowling has acknowledged liberal social and political themes in the books and revealed that she always thought of Harry's headmaster, Dumbledore, as gay.
The research was conducted at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia's Research Center on Interethnic Relations, Multiculturality and Immigration in Italy. It included two related studies of elementary school and high school students.
For the first study, 34 fifth-graders completed questionnaires about their attitudes toward immigrants. Then once a week for six consecutive weeks, a researcher met with students in small groups, reading passages from Harry Potter to the students and facilitating discussions about them. Next, the students completed the same questionnaire -- and said whether they identified more with Harry Potter or his evil nemesis, Voldemort.
Half of the students listened to Harry Potter passages that spotlight prejudice -- including a passage when Harry's nasty schoolmate Draco Malfoy calls Hermione Granger a “filthy little Mudblood.” Discussion following the reading focused specifically on discrimination and how it had affected the characters. The other half of the students were exposed to passages not associated with prejudice.
What did the researchers find? Students who discussed the prejudice-related passages showed "improved attitudes toward immigrants" -- but only if they identified emotionally with Harry Potter.
In the second study, 117 Italian high school students noted how many Harry Potter books they had read and then completed surveys to assess their attitudes toward gay people. Again, students who had read more of the books tended to be more gay friendly.
Vezalli said he thought the findings held an important lesson for teachers.
"Attitudes of young children are more malleable," he said, "and so it should be a priority of educators to tackle prejudiced attitudes from a younger age, when attitudes are still not 'too resistant to change.'"
The research was published online in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.