Harry Potter–An Empathetic Role Model

By Melanie Holland, CEI Intern.

Reading the Harry Potter book series may help teach empathy and compassion to students when compared to students who didn’t, according to a newly released study. Students who read Harry Potter exhibited fewer prejudiced feelings toward stigmatized groups’”specifically, immigrants, refugees, and homosexuals. Identifying with Harry Potter increased the effect.

The study assessed the correlation between Harry Potter and empathy in two ways. In the first, researchers gave questionnaires to high schools students, one that asked questions about their book choices, and the other gauging their attitudes towards gay people. In the second, the researchers surveyed Italian school children in their fifth year of primary school to assess their attitudes towards immigrants. Then, they read sections of Harry Potter books over six weeks that focused on prejudice (such as the Slytherins’ negative attitudes towards ‘muggles’ like Hermione). They found that following the readings, children showed more empathy towards immigrants than they did initially. They also found that those who most strongly identified with Harry Potter were the most empathetic.

There are caveats to the results of the study. First, the effect was strongest in students who identified with Harry Potter, which means that these students could just be more empathetic overall. If they can relate easily to fictional characters, they may relate just as easily to all groups of people. Second, in general, students who read more usually come from more well-educated and liberal families, which could lead to more liberal-minded children. Many conservative and religious-minded families that ban their children from reading Harry Potter are more likely to be the families that don’t approve of homosexuality, for example.

firenzeThough there are obviously gaps in the data that need to be analyzed more in depth, I believe the data highlights what may be a gap in educational novels’”empathetic role models. It may be that having role models like Harry Potter, will better allow students to mimic the empathetic attitudes and mindsets he portrays in the novels. For example, Harry is one of the few Hogwarts students to accept and treat Luna Lovegood, Hagrid, and Firenze with respect and acceptance. (I may be a Harry Potter fan’…) While there are empathetic characters in novels students read in school, few are as popular or easy to relate to as Harry Potter and his friends.

A quote from the lead author of the study, Loris Vezzali sums up the study: ‘The books do not directly refer to real-world groups, and so their message can be easily applied to several stigmatized categories. Encouraging book reading and incorporating it in school curricula may not only increase the students’ literacy levels, but also enhance their prosocial attitudes and behaviors and ultimately help in the creation of a more equal society.’

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