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Harry Potter and the Elixir of Empathy

Eyes peering over a Harry Potter book

Problem

People develop prejudice at a young age.

Solution

Reading about fictional characters who show empathy for marginalized groups helps children become more empathetic in real life. 

The Details

Psychologist Loris Vezzali and colleagues worked with 34 Italian fifth-grade students in small groups.  Each group met with researchers once a week to read and discuss passages from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

The researchers assigned the small groups to one of two conditions. In the experimental condition, children read passages about the consequences of prejudice. In one passage, the character Draco called Harry’s friend Hermione a “filthy little Mudblood” (an insult to wizards of non-wizard parents). A narration of Hermione’s humiliation and Harry’s anger followed the insult.

In the control condition, children read a passage unrelated to prejudice. For example, Harry bought his first magic wand in one of the control passages.

Six weeks later, the researchers asked the children how they felt about students from different countries. Children in the experimental condition expressed warmer feelings towards international students than those in the control condition.  

In follow-up studies with teenagers and adults, Vezzali and his colleagues found that people who identified with Harry Potter conveyed openness to gay people and refugees.

Why This Works

When people identify with fictional characters who support marginalized groups, they start to take the perspective of marginalized groups in both fictional and real-life settings.

When This Works Best

This works best when people do not already hold extremely prejudiced views about stigmatized people.

The Original Study

Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2015). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45(2), 105-121.

In the Press

The New York Times

Psychology Today

Medical Daily

Credits

Text by Lily Zheng

Photo CC by malik ml williams


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