Harry Potter and the Tolerance of Others

Harry Potter and the Tolerance of Others

“Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.”
–Arthur C. Clarke

I’ve said many times here that I think people who are readers tend to be more understanding of viewpoints other than their own.

I’ve also said that I like to see the data. 😉

There has now been a study (more than one, actually) published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology


that specifically tested the concept.

I need to say first that I have not read the actual study: it’s $35 at the above link. I have read several articles about it, though, and I think I can fairly give you an idea of it and my opinion of what it means.

I think two of the more interesting pieces about it were in

Scientific American


The Mary Sue

Based on those, the studies, conducted by Loris Vezzali, Sofia Stathi, Dino Giovannini, Dora Capozza and Elena Trifiletti, established real world prejudice baselines in a group of students, then had some of them read passages of the Harry Potter series (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) that had to do with intolerance, and others read more neutral passages. After retesting the students on the same tolerance question, those which had read the intolerance sections had their prejudice reduced.

One important suggestion is that the fact that the prejudices in Harry Potter were not real ones may have made them more effective.

In the real world, we don’t have a prejudice against “mud bloods”, those of mixed magical and “muggle” heritage.

It allows us to see it in a more abstract way.

Let’s suppose that you already have an intolerance for “x group” in the real world (a race, a sexual preference, a religion, a gender, a national origin, and so on). Reading a book that presents a negative attitude about that group might not be that impactful on you…because of emotional resonance. Even if the book presented the feeling as wrong, you might be empathetic with the characters who had that feeling. I’m not saying this is in the study specifically, by the way…we’ve moved into my interpretation of what I’ve read.

Without spoiling it, let’s take Captain Kirk’s reaction to the Gorn on the original Star Trek. The Gorn was a large, bipedal reptile-like alien. It’s easier for us to see Captain Kirk’s prejudice as being wrong, since we don’t come to the table with a pre-formed opinion of Gorns (although we may have feelings about reptiles).

If, on the other hand, we saw a non-fantasy show which portrayed a character of a particular ethnicity as stubborn, we might have a harder time seeing that as a stereotype. I know of more than one group that refers to itself as stubborn, and may do it proudly. It would be more difficult for us to recognize that idea as a pre-conception applied to an individual, if we had previously been exposed to that concept.

I’ve had an intuitive sense that reading makes people less prejudiced for a long time.

Part of my feeling on that was that reading requires you to develop a “theory of mind”…and of emotion. In order to understand fiction, you need to be able to put yourself into the position of the characters. I would guess that people with certain conditions which make it hard for them to recognize emotions in others may have a difficult time following what is happening in a scene.

If we recognize that Character A is mad at Character B, we anticipate that Character A will say things which express that anger. If Character A says, “I’m sure you are going to get exactly what you want,” we know that isn’t simply well-wishing. If Character B reacts negatively to that statement, we understand why. Someone with no empathy might not understand what was motivating the next bit of action.

Generally, I think that someone who reads broadly, that is, reads different genres and books written from different points of view, will be more tolerant in real life of other’s opinions.

However, I had never thought about the parallel culture element. By that I mean that we can more clearly see what is happening in a fantasy culture which not our own than what is happening in a simulation of our actual conditions.

If you and your Significant Other go to a ballroom dance class, you may find that the instructor will have you first learn the steps with a different partner. Why? When you are dancing with your own partner, there are a whole of other things going than you figuring out where to put your feet. By moving you to someone you don’t know, you are better able to concentrate on learning the dance. Then, they may put you back with your SO.

Reading a science fiction/fantasy book is, in a sense, dancing with an unknown partner.

Kala, Tarzan’s adoptive “ape” mother in the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book, is more than tolerant of this human. Other members of the Mangani (while we refer to them generally as “apes”, they act more like a species of humans), show their dislike for Tarzan (even the “jungle lord”s adoptive father).

I doubt anyone reading that story, even in 1912, failed to see that message, and to side with Tarzan and Kala.

If a book published in the same time frame had shown a human outsider of a different social group in the same position, I think many pe0ple would have recognized the disruption that the outsider brought to the group…and might have been less likely to agree with Kala.

If what the study indicates is true, we may actually see that those who read Harry Potter when they were children (the study did find different impacts at different ages…or at least, different reasons for the impact) may be more tolerant.

It’s possible that, with the large number of readers, the world may actually have been made better by a fantasy series.

Just as I always suspected…

What do you think? Can people’s morality be changed by fiction? If it can make you a better person (which I believe), can it make you a worse person (which I find harder to accept)? Would some people reading Harry Potter be swayed by the Death Eaters, and emulate them? For years, some English teachers and community leaders discouraged reading fantasy and science fiction (especially in comic book form)…were they right to do that? When people are ridiculed for having “childish fantasies” as adults, is that doing society a disservice? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


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