This Side of the Pond – Nov. 30

By Sarah Pridgeon

The best-selling book series of all time is basically a retelling of my school days but with griffons and shape-shifters thrown in for good measure. I am talking, of course, about the Harry Potter novels, which have come to my attention this week on hearing that a scientific study suggests we should all have a go at reading them if we want to be nice to each other.

I know, weird, right? The study claims the greatest magic of all in the world of Harry Potter is that simply immersing yourself in the books can make you a better person. Specifically, it can reduce your prejudice against your fellow man.

That’s a bold claim for a series about a boy wizard, to say the least. If you’re one of the six people left on the planet who hasn’t at least heard of the story, the titular character is an orphan who is forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs by his uncaring aunt and uncle until, one day, a letter arrives from Britain’s sole magical school, Hogwarts.

Off Harry goes and adventures ensue, most of them involving the dastardly plots of He Who Must Not Be Named, the evil Lord Voldemort. With a group of evil wizards and witches known as the Death Eaters by his side, Voldemort’s aim is to rid the wizarding world of “muggles” – those with non-magical heritage – and establish pure blood dominance instead.

He’s not a big fan of our Harry, who, according to prophecy, is the only one with the power to vanquish him. Harry is an orphan in the first place because Voldemort attempted to get rid of him when he was a tot in the cradle and his parents gave their lives to save him.

It would be perfectly understandable if you are wondering how all of this could possibly improve one’s character. How does a book about half-giants teaching the Care of Magical Beasts and a teenage girl turning back time to get to more of her classes help the next generation with its empathy?

The key, it seems, is in your age. The study was run by scientists at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy and tested three different age groups.

The first was made up of elementary school children, who were first given a questionnaire (everyone’s favorite part, no doubt) to test their attitudes towards immigrants. They were then divided into two groups that met weekly to read and discuss Harry Potter.

In one group, the kids read passages from the book that feature prejudice against non-magicals, such as one in which Harry’s best friend, Hermione, is called a “filthy little mudblood”. In the other, they read other parts of the text, such as the scene in which Harry buys his first wand.

After six weeks, the guinea pigs were once again handed a questionnaire. Those in the first group who identified with Harry had significantly more positive attitudes towards immigrants, while those in the second group hadn’t changed their minds in the slightest.

The two follow-up experiments had the same results, but this time focused on high school students in Italy and their attitudes towards homosexuals; and university students in England and their compassion for refugees.

In the third experiment, however, things were a little different. For the university students, the factor that made the difference was not that the students identified with Harry Potter, who is considerably younger than them in the earlier books. Instead, it was a case of strongly not identifying with Voldemort, who is essentially Hitler with a wand and cape.

The scientist leading the study, Loris Vezzali, came to the conclusion that reading novels as a child can positively affect our personality development and social skills – no great surprise there, I would suggest. However, he also suggested that the fantasy genre as a whole might be the best choice for a young mind because it doesn’t feature real groups of people and therefore doesn’t make the child feel defensive, awkward or sensitive to political correctness.

And so the books that I once read to my little brother at bedtime, displaying my acting talents to great effect when voicing Dobby the House Elf, are apparently more than just a journey outside of the everyday. At least for the youth of this world, they can make life just that little bit rosier around the edges.

I’m a strong supporter of the idea of everyone being nice to each other, no matter where we came from or where we’re going. Hatred has never done anybody any good, while an abundance of the opposite is one of those things that makes life worth living.

And if we can make that happen simply by encouraging our kids to read about British wizards at a traditional boarding school with floating candles, saving the world one levitation spell at a time, then who am I to argue?