Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Want to become a wizard? Just read Harry Potter

I will never forget when the final installment of the Harry Potter series came out. Myself and a few of my closest friends from college, all big HP fans, were spending the weekend at my Mom’s house. Although I hadn’t seen these friends in 6 months, although there were a ton of activities to do in that region of upstate NY, although we were twenty five years old - we could not wait to see how J.K. Rowling was going to wrap up the series. The second we picked up the Deathly Hallows, we literally did not stop.  We lounged around all day, moving from the sun chairs outside, to the porch, to our beds, and back. We ate, we drank, we read. We barely talked. Parmita and I, the most determined, read straight through the night – 759 pages in total. It was a marathon, and let me tell you, it was well worth it.

Though the power of a good book is undeniable even to the lightest of readers, researchers have discovered some unexpected benefits from an engaging narrative. For example, people tend to feel less lonely after reading a familiar narrative, and even seek out comforting books after experiences of social rejection (Derrick, Gabriel, & Hugenberg, 2009). Narratives have been found to help develop social skills – they teach us rules that govern social interactions and help us to cultivate empathy (e.g. Mar & Oatley, 2008). In an interesting study published recently in Psychological Science, Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young even found that we actually feel like, or become, the characters of the book, and that this assumption of the characters’ identities makes us feel happier and more satisfied with our own lives. Here's the study...

Participants read either chapters from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Rowling, 1999) - or Twilight (Meyer, 2005) – the hugely popular tale about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire (yes I have read it). After reading the assigned passage participants completed an Implicit Association Test (IAT) – a common tool used by psychology researchers to measure an individual’s association between two concepts outside of their conscious awareness or control. In this quite charming version of the IAT – the researchers measured the association between themselves (using words like me, myself, mine) and either wizard concepts (e.g. wand, broomstick) or vampire concepts (e.g. blood, bitten). Participants who read Harry Potter were more likely to associate themselves with wizard. That is they actually thought of themselves as wizards at an unconscious level. Participants who read Twilight were more likely to associate themselves with vampires. They actually thought of themselves as vampires at an unconscious level.

Additionally, participants who read Harry Potter were more likely to overtly endorse questions  such as  “Do you think, if you tried really hard, you might be able to make an object move using the power of your mind?” or “Do you think you might be able to make yourself disappear and reappear somewhere else?” Participants who read Twilight, on the other hand, were more likely to rate themselves high on questions such as “How sharp are your teeth?” or “How long could you go without sleep?”

Finally, the researchers calculated how much each participant felt like they themselves were a wizard or a vampire using the IAT and the explicit questions I just described. Those participants that showed the most identification with the characters of the book also evidenced increases in positive mood, and in overall LIFE SATISFACTION. Pretty cool!

Though I finished the Harry Potter series many years ago, these findings bring me back to that wonderful weekend of marathon reading. I now realize, that weekend I indeed became a wizard (ok a witch). I’ve never been to England, but I certainly was there at Hogwarts. I don’t know Daniel Radcliffe, but I sure felt close to Harry Potter. Because of this, I was probably happier and more satisfied with my life that weekend than during many others. Perhaps it’s finally time to start reading them again.

What literary character have you identified with the most? Have you noticed yourself thinking or acting like them?!
The article:
Gabriel S, & Young AF (2011). Becoming a vampire without being bitten: the narrative collective-assimilation hypothesis. Psychological science, 22 (8), 990-4 PMID: 21750250


  1. I always identified with Hermione, due to the curly hair and book-smarts! Also - if you haven't read The Hunger Games, that's a great series to "lose" yourself in, plus a movie is coming out in March! I become really invested in any book when I can relate to the main character in some way, or "envision" myself living in his/her world, be it Harry Potter, Bella, Hermione, Pip from Great Expectations, etc. I guess that's what makes reading so wonderful.

  2. I can see the Hermione resemblance Dana!

    I agree wholeheartedly - a good character keeps you interested and makes reading such a joy! Thanks for the comment.

  3. I wonder if how much you identify with the book's characters is related to the type of pronouns used-- first-person versus third. Be interesting to find out if it makes any differents in the strength of the subconscious identification.

  4. Interesting comment! I'm guessing you're right - reading in first vs. third person likely makes a difference in how strongly you identify with a character. I don't know of any psychological research, but it would be a neat follow-up to this study.