Harry Potter and Dragon Training for a Better World

Photo Credit: Chelsea Wilhite

By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 10.48.31 PMI cannot wait until my infant son is old enough to understand chapter books, especially fun, exciting ones with positive moral messages… you know, like Harry Potter. I have always been a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, and now I have yet another reason to love it. A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology concludes reading Harry Potter could make one more accepting of stigmatized groups (out-groups).

For those unfamiliar with the seven-book series, Harry Potter and his friends (and most of his foes) are members of a magical population. These people, called “witches” and “wizards,” essentially live in a largely separate subculture within the broader society.  Non-magical people are called “Muggles,” which is a word that can simply be a descriptive term, or, if said in a particular way, a slur. At several points throughout the series, the issue of familial heritage plays into the story lines.  Witches and wizards whose parents and grandparents are all magical are referred to by some characters as “purebloods.” The name for a witch or wizard with magical and non-magical parents (or grandparents) is “half-blood,” while the derogatory name for witches and wizards with two Muggle parents is “Mudblood.” Mudblood is a highly offensive term.

At times in the stories, Harry’s good friend Hermione Granger is verbally attacked and called Mudblood because her parents are dentists with no magical ability. They are Muggles.  When these attacks occur, the reader knows two important things: 1) Hermione’s friends come to her defense, and 2) the words still have a harmful effect on the girl. In other parts of the series, Harry and his friends stand up for members of other marginalized populations such as house elves, giants, and centaurs.

The Journal of Applied Social Psychology publication included three studies, one experimental and two correlational.  Researchers had school children read chosen passages from the Harry Potter series that either dealt with prejudice (experimental condition) or did not involve prejudice (control condition). They then had group discussions about the passages. Data show that, compared to measures taken before intervention, children who read passages that dealt with prejudice and identified with the main positive character (Harry Potter) had improved attitudes toward real-life out-groups.

In the two correlational studies, researchers collected similar measures which took into account exposure to both the Harry Potter books and the movies. Participants in these studies were high school and college students. Results with the high school students were similar to those in the first study: students who read Harry Potter and/or saw the Harry Potter movies and identified with Harry had improved attitudes toward out-groups. Results with the college students were similar with one catch: attitudes for students who were exposed to Harry Potter and did not identify with the main negative character (Voldemort) were correlated with perspective-taking toward out-groups. The authors point to age similarities as a possible reason for this difference.  In the series, Harry is a child (like elementary students) then a teenager (like high school students), but Voldemort is an adult (like college students).

Acceptance of out-groups was correlated with self-identification with either Harry Potter or lack of identification with the evil character Voldemort. The article did not speculate why some people did not identify with Harry Potter, nor did they speculate how one might discover the answer. The authors reference social cognitive theory in their discussion, but we can interpret their findings from a behavioral perspective. For a good description of how behavior science accounts for the verbal behavior involved, see Hayes (2004).

The Journal of Applied Social Psychology study suggests fiction entertainment, including reading and film-watching, can have a positive impact on perceptions of others. Furthermore, the authors emphasize these effects are seen after exposure to fictional stories involving made-up groups (witches, wizards, house elves, giants, and centaurs do not exist). The idea of using mass media (books, film, television, and now the Internet) to teach children desirable behaviors is not new.  Two well-known examples include Sesame Street and Dr. Seuss.  SesameWorkshop, Sesame Street’s parent company, includes in its mission statement the goal of helping children “grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.” And messages in Dr. Seuss books often include perspective taking and compassion (e.g., Horton Hears a Who, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!) and warnings about the negative results of lack of caring for others and the environment (e.g., The Lorax).

The pioneers in behavior analysis saw the science’s potential for making the world a better place, but as a field, we are still struggling to do that. Recently, behavior analysts have suggested using popular media to help the general population be more accepting of behavioral principles and techniques. In a 2010 article I wrote with Criss Wilhite and W. Larry Williams in The Behavior Analyst, we describe how the DreamWorks film How to Train Your Dragon is an example using behavioral principles to better society, even if that society is fictitious. We further suggested that appropriate behavioral techniques can be featured in popular media – including print, film, television, and the Internet – with the hope that it will result in people being more accepting of our applied science. Of course, much research would be needed to demonstrate this is actually the case.

What do you think? Can behavior scientists use popular media to help spread understanding and acceptance of our science and practice? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA has always wanted to better understand the world around us. As a television journalist, Chelsea worked her way up the ranks to produce the number one rated television news broadcast in the Fresno television market, an area covering five California counties. Along the way, she won two regional news Emmys and a Radio and Television News Directors Award for best news producer. In an effort to further her understanding of natural phenomena, Chelsea left television after more than a decade, turning to Behavior Analysis. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno. While behavior science research and instruction is now her primary interest, Chelsea never lost her passion for journalism and regularly contributes to behavior science oriented blogs, magazines, and newsletters.

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1 Comment on "Harry Potter and Dragon Training for a Better World"

  1. Completely agree. The cultural image of behavioural principles as something relegated to the murky past of “Lab-Coat Science” where men and women in horn-rimmed glasses torture small animals for “science” is a pervasive and apparently indefatigable conception.

    My personal belief is that Behavioural perspectives need be disseminated as the defacto assumption of various analyses. What I mean is that rather than write about how good behaviour analysis is we should write about, say, Social Norms, or the impact of Uber, or why Windows 10 is so good (etc…) from the assumption that behavioural principles are true.

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