Fiction often works its magic in the most unexpected ways. Take, for instance, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It details a fantastical Britain, co-habited by people with magical abilities (wizards and witches) and non-magic folk (Muggles). It shows the tensions, the reconciliation—that have obvious real world parallels in racism—not just between these two groups, but also between the wizards and witches coming from a long lineage of magic and those who are Muggle-born. Then, it also had non-human characters—elves, goblins, etc—treated sub-par compared to wizards and witches. This was evocative of slavery and casteism. A new research, whose findings were published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, shows that children and young adults who had read the series and identified with the protagonists exhibited significantly greater tolerance for minority groups.
Researchers at the University of Modena, Italy, gave a group of 34 fifth-graders a questionnaire on their attitude towards immigrants—a stigmatised group in the country—and studied their responses. The students were then given Harry Potter books and divided into two groups. The treatment group discussed the portions on discrimination while the control group discussed the other portions. After this, the students were asked to fill the questionnaire a second time. The treatment group revealed greater empathy for immigrants than before while the control group’s responses were largely unchanged. Similarly, of 117 secondary schoolers, Harry Potter readers were more tolerant of LGBT orientations than those who hadn’t read the books. The same results showed among college-goers, too, even though all those surveyed identified with the protagonists.