Can Harry Potter Teach Kids Empathy?

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Photo: Warner Bros.

There could be an incredibly easy way to teach kids empathy toward outsiders: Hand ‘em a Harry Potter book. In a paper published online this week in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Italian researchers report that kids who read the series — which features a world in which elves, werewolves, goblins, poltergeists, and other fantastical creatures coexist — exhibited fewer prejudiced feelings toward stigmatized groups, when compared to kids who didn't read the books. 

In one study, researchers gave high school kids in Northern Italy two questionnaires: one asked about the books they’d read (both Potter and non-Potter) and the other was meant to gauge their attitudes toward gay people. As it turns out, the kids who were bigger Potterphiles — and who identified with the eponymous character — were also more likely to have positive feelings toward gay individuals. 

There are some caveats here, to be sure. First, the effect seen in that study wasn’t as strong in kids who didn’t identify with Harry, so it also could be that the students who saw themselves in the boy wizard were more empathetic, anyway. And kids who read more of the books could very well be from more liberal families, since some conservative and religious groups aren't wild about the wizarding world. 

Still, it's a nice thought. And the takeaway here, lead author Loris Vezzali noted in an email to Science of Us, is that many schools may be looking for ways to teach their students empathy toward diverse groups of people. The Harry Potter books are an easy sell for school administrators and kids alike – the books are already out and easily available, and they also happen to be a ton of fun.  

But they’re also more than that, Vezzali said. “The books do not directly refer to real-world groups, and so their message can be easily applied to several stigmatized categories,” Vezzali said in an email. “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.” In other words: Accio empathy!