An applied psychology study proves reading J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series opens up readers minds.
Harry Potter's not just defeating Lord Voldemort: the book series is teaching readers the importance of tolerance. The New York Times reports that the diversity of the Potter material demonstrates how prejudice can affect everyone in what's called extended contact.
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The definition of extended contact is "contact at one remove, perhaps in the form of hearing or reading about members of one’s in-group interacting in a positive way with members of an out-group." In other words, the experience is not personal, but a connection through someone else’s story.
The phenomenon's been documented in adolescents reading stories about character interactions from similar backgrounds interacting with dissimilar groups. Consider the example of female comic fans finding connections within the latest Ms. Marvel series, where Kamala Khan is a Pakistani American who also happens to be Muslim.
However, a key point of extended contact is positive interaction. A Northern Ireland teen may focus on the positive reinforcement about the Protestant and Catholic divide, while a southern American reader may find a better connection to racial concerns. Either way, the impact helps.
And extended contact's been discussed heavily in the young adult book genre for quite awhile. CNN recently asked YA authors about the topic and they overwhelmingly wanted a deeper connection to the diversity in real life. In other words: not everyone will look like Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, the suntanned, leggy California blondes.
So Harry Potter's showcasing the dangers of "blood purity" matters to the audience.
J.K. Rowling's intent of inclusion, acceptance, and tolerance really shined when put under the microscope. According to researcher Loris Vezzali and his co-authors, Harry's identity and point of view opened more doors to the readers.
As a professor at Italy's University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Vezzali and the researchers "set out to learn whether reading about these interactions on the page made young people more open-minded in real life."
Did the answers come out as predicted? The short answer is yes. The long answer is more fascinating.
In the end, Harry's ability to possess magic doesn't seem to trump his more Muggle, or ordinary, roots. While his father was pureblood, his mother was a Muggle-born witch and together they created a half-blood.
The term half-blood is analogous to a combination of different cultures, creating a synthesis that may leave a person or character straddling both sides of their background. A situation that Hermione Granger faced as a Muggle-born witch, or Harry's own mother Lily Evans; it’s also a situation many readers may face in their everyday lives.
Or if looking at the prejudice side, children of the union may be considered less pure, less worthy. Which makes an insecure person ripe for self-loathing and easy to twist into a more bigoted opinion—as was the case with a character like Severus Snape.
The goal of the research project was to determine how fifth-graders responded to immigration and "evaluating their attitudes toward immigrants." Immigration is not just a current United States discussion point, but also a common discussion within the European Union, including Italy.
The school children were split into two groups, where each group read passages from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that either dealt with prejudice or ignoring the theme entirely. The study lasted six weeks with appointed chapters as needed to offer conclusive proof.
In one week's selection, the scene where Slytherin bully Draco Malfoy calls Granger a “filthy little Mudblood" was used. In that scene, Granger and Potter's friends react with outrage because Mudblood is a very derogatory, slanderous term. Meanwhile, the other group of young adults read about Harry's experience at buying his first magic wand.
After an end of study assessment, the researchers found participants that read "the passages about prejudice reported more positive feelings about immigrants than at the beginning of the study." But there's a caveat since the reader had to identify with the character Harry, something to create an emotional bond. As for those who did not read anything about the prejudice attitudes, nothing changed because there was no self-identifying available within the text.
Two additional studies offered a closer look at the effects of reading Harry Potter. The first study examined the high-school attitudes towards those who identify as gay, and the second experiment involved college students’ attitudes towards refugees. Both supplemental studies found "reading the Harry Potter novels was associated with more positive attitudes toward these frequently excluded or disparaged groups."
Vezzali and colleagues study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, but one of the most distinctive findings found that overt attempts to change attitudes failed and created a defensive, unwilling attitude to accept change.
No one wants to be force fed an idea or attitude; such behavior can be interpreted as taking away self determination. What does work is to create a sympathetic character with a diverse group of characters that befriend and challenge preconceived notions.
Terms like Mudblood and Muggle stretch the imagination, but are easy to identify as equivalent terminology to the real world that the readers are a part of. Similar identification proved positive inclusion for other out-groups into a social circle.
The study is not the first, nor will it be the last, but does provide evidence that inclusion is easily accessible: all one needs to do is offer a diverse reading selection and not stick to just one particular type of work.