Harry Potter is both boy wizard and boy hero: a protagonist worthy of children’s and parents’ affections alike. But there’s more to H.P. when it comes to his inherent virtue–and science proves it.
According to research in Italy, characters such as a Harry help young readers develop acceptance of stigmatised groups. A series of three studies revealed that when children connected with positive characters, they were less likely to display sociological prejudices. Interestingly, this effect was present in adolescents and adults, too–specifically relative to the number of J.K. Rowling titles they’d read.
“Simply presenting positive information about stigmatised groups may not be sufficient,” study coauthor and social psychologist Loris Vezzali explains. “Individuals have to feel involved and ‘imitate’ actions of characters with whom they can identify.”
Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the study first surveyed a group of 34 10-11 year olds regarding their attitudes to ethnic groups different from their own. The children were then read selected passages from Harry Potter that “dealt issues of prejudice and their consequence” once a week for a total period of six weeks. When surveyed again, those participants who had identified with Harry showed improved response to social out-groups.
“A possible caveat is that elves, goblins, etc. — that is, the stigmatised characters in the books, do not exist in the real world,” Vezzali says. However, it’s this that allows the different and strange creatures to stand as metaphor for a broad range of stigmatised categories; “people can associate them with several types of stigmatized groups in the society.”
It’s undisputed that reading (and reading early) can develop your child’s brain in big ways, but the Italian study and others like it show that the written word can impact others in your child’s life in incredible ways, too.
Vezzali notes that empathy can flourish by reading many different books–not just Harry Potter. The key is to offer plenty, and often. And don’t be afraid to balance the good guy tales with those in which villains take centre stage: it’s great for perspective.