Harry Potter and the Goblet of Empathy

If you’ve never read the Harry Potter books, congratulations! Once you do, you’ll be able to experience a world of magic and wonder for the first time. The rest of us are all jealous of you.

But if you have, congratulations to you, too! There’s a good chance you’re a bit more empathetic than those who haven’t.

The Harry Potter series is one of the best-selling titles ever, and certainly in recent memory. Ask someone of a certain age range what house they’re in and chances are they’ll be able to answer. (For what it’s worth, I’m about 60% Ravenclaw, 40% Hufflepuff, and hat on head, would likely want to be placed in the latter.) It’s a cultural touchstone for a generation or two, and as such, has become the subject of scientific inquiry. Take, for example, this 204 study which asked: could reading Harry Potter reduce prejudice?

And the answer? It just might.

For those familiar with the books (and movies), the next few sentences are going to be a review; for those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading the books yet, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. In the stories, there are two types of people: those who can perform magic, called wizards and witches; and those of who can’t, called Muggles. (For you Potter fans out there, let’s put Squibs aside.) Wizards and witches typically come from families with wizards and witches in them, but sometimes they come from Muggle families. Muggle-born wizards and witches are often looked down upon by some families that can trace their magical lineage back generations. At some point in magic history, the term “mudblood” became a derogatory word for a Muggle-born witch or wizard. We readers are introduced to this in one of the books, and it’s very clear that calling someone a “mudblood” is a terrible, terrible thing to do. 

It’s that passage, and similar ones, that Loris Vezzali — a professor of psychology (and, I guess, Muggle studies) in Italy — used in his experiment. Scientific American explains:

In the first [of three experiments], 34 elementary school children were given a questionnaire assessing their attitudes towards immigrants, a group frequently stigmatized in Italy. The children were then divided into two groups that met once a week for six weeks to read Harry Potter passages and discuss it with a research assistant. One group read passages relating to prejudice, like the scene where Draco Malfoy, a shockingly blond pure-blood wizard, calls Harry’s friend Hermione a “filthy little Mud-blood.” The control group read excerpts unrelated to prejudice, including the scene where Harry buys his first magic wand. A week after the last session, the children’s attitudes towards out-groups were assessed again. Among those who identified with the Harry Potter character, attitudes toward immigrants were found to be significantly improved in children who’d read passages dealing with prejudice. The attitudes of those who’d read neutral passages hadn’t changed.

And two other experiments yielded similar results. The second one, per Scientific American, “found that reading Harry Potter improved attitudes towards homosexuals in Italian high school students” (despite the fact that the book has few, if any, openly LGBTQ+ characters). The third, again per SA, “linked the books with more compassion towards refugees among English university students.” 

The study, like most academic papers, offered a few caveats to their findings. Per The Cut, “the effect seen in that study wasn’t as strong in kids who didn’t identify with Harry, so it also could be that the students who saw themselves in the boy wizard were more empathetic, anyway” But that’s okay — it’s likely that any story with similar references to out-groups and the like will do. Per the paper’s abstract, “extended contact via story reading is a powerful strategy to improve out‐group attitudes,” and that’s something that goes beyond Hogwarts.

Bonus fact: Empathy isn’t limited to us humans. In a 2015 paper titled “Rats demonstrate helping behavior toward a soaked conspecific” (which I only mention because the phrase “soaked conspecific” is fantastic), researchers at Kwansei Gakuin University “tested behavior when rats were forced to choose between opening the door to help a distressed cagemate and opening a different door to obtain a food reward.” The result? “In most test trials, rats chose to help the cagemate before obtaining a food reward, suggesting that the relative value of helping others is greater.” Maybe they’ve read Harry Potter?

From the Archives: Harry Potter’s Final Secret: What’s in Butterbeer? They’ll never tell.

Hey! Also read this: A few years ago, I wrote an essay titled Harry Potter and The Problem With The Pensieve Memories, and it’s a small glimpse into the amount of space taken up in my brain by Harry Potter.