A new study finds that kids who read the Harry Potter books, and identified with Harry, showed “improved attitudes towards immigrants” and gays.
On the other hand, kids who identified more with Voldemort (who identifies with Voldemort — teen Putin?) ended up being less tolerant.
The study, to its credit, didn’t just look at how the kids felt about gays and immigrants, rather they looked at the before and after feelings, to see to what degree their views changed. And they did.
Here’s the abstract from the study (which calls gays “homosexuals” — perhaps some researchers need to read the Harry Potter books a bit more):
Recent research shows that extended contact via story reading is a powerful strategy to improve out-group attitudes. We conducted three studies to test whether extended contact through reading the popular best-selling books of Harry Potter improves attitudes toward stigmatized groups (immigrants, homosexuals, refugees). Results from one experimental intervention with elementary school children and from two cross-sectional studies with high school and university students (in Italy and United Kingdom) supported our main hypothesis. Identification with the main character (i.e., Harry Potter) and disidentification from the negative character (i.e., Voldemort) moderated the effect. Perspective taking emerged as the process allowing attitude improvement. Theoretical and practical implications of the findings are discussed in the context of extended intergroup contact and social cognitive theory.
I’ll get to my “homosexual” rant after we discuss the guts of the study.
As for the improvement in attitudes, I suppose part of the question is whether there’s anything unique about Harry Potter, or whether any book that presents tolerance of those who are different (mudbloods, geeks, half-giants, orphans, smart kids, centaurs, etc.) would provoke the same response. Not that this diminishes the impact of the study, but it would suggest that it’s not something unique to the Harry Potter story.
And it’s something the study authors note:
Finally, this research has only focused on the popular best seller of Harry Potter; It is important to identify and test other popular novels that can have similar effects and that can be equally appealing to young readers…. Although this research focused on Harry Potter books as they are representative of fiction literature with large-scale appeal to the public, similar research can focus on other popular published fictional books.
There’s also the question of the lasting impact. I’d be curious at what point, if any, these imparted lessons of tolerance become sticky; i.e., they don’t weaken and eventually go away in time.
I’m also curious whether we’re simply witnessing heightened emotions from someone who already “gets it.” Meaning, you can be tolerant of gays, or pro-gay even, and still be even more so after reading a book about tolerance. I mean, that’s all well and good, but to what degree are studies like this simply evidence of preaching to the choir. Meaning, are we simply improving the views of people who are already good enough on our issues, and thus the impact might not be as significant as when we improve the views of someone who was more in the middle?
And finally, a word about “homosexual.” As I’ve written before, the word “homosexual” is archaic and increasingly has a negative connotation (which is why the anti-gay religious right tends to use it instead of “gay”). Regardless of claims to the contrary, no self-respecting homosexual uses the word “homosexual” other than ironically — and if they claim otherwise, ask them when was the last time they told their friends, “Hey, I found a great new homosexual bar down in Chelsea!”
The term just isn’t used anymore outside of a clinical context, and there’s the rub. The word has a cold, scientific, and I’d argue pejorative nuance to it that harkens back to the days when gays were considered mentally ill. And for those who fear the word police, we’re not declaring you public enemy one if you use the word homosexual. We are, however, informing you of the changing meaning and nuance of the word over the years. No one would argue that it’s PC not to call an Asian “oriental,” or an African-American a “negro.” Words that were once okay can change.
Finally, I always like to end this discussion by linking to a study that showed how support for gays plummeted when a poll about ending “Dont Ask, Don’t Tell” (the military’s ban on gay troops) changd the wording of its question from “gay” to “homosexual.”