Kids who grew up reading the Harry Potter books are voting in U.S. elections. And now a new study says the adventures of the young wizard might have cast an enduring spell on its fans, subtly shaping their values and political views. The Millennial Generation is actually the Muggle Generation.
Anthony Gierzynski, a political scientist at the University of Vermont, interviewed more than 1,100 Millennial-aged college students across the nation. He found that young people who grew up as Harry Potter fans are more open to diversity and are more politically tolerant than nonfans. The fans are also less likely to support the use of deadly force or torture, more politically active and more likely to have had a negative view of the Bush administration. Gierzynski says these correlations remained significant even when applying more sophisticated statistical analyses — controlling for other factors, such as parental influences.
Gierzynski is accustomed to encountering skepticism. And, he says, it hasn't helped that the publicity surrounding his 136-page book has generated headlines such as "Harry Potter Helped Obama Get Elected. " One article even declared that his study proved Harry Potter books had "brainwashed" Millennials. ("Despite Gierzynski's claims that reading the books caused Millennials to favor the left wing politician," the article reported, "he refused to confirm suspicions that he considers Harry a Democrat and Voldemort a Republican.")
Gierzynski retorts in an editorial published at The Conversation that it shouldn't seem ridiculous to look at how entertainment shapes our politics, given the vast volume of research that has examined popular culture's effects on violence, sex, smoking and drinking. In fact, political views, he argues, are particularly susceptible to being influenced by entertainment — especially nowadays, as the consumption of pop culture in our society increases, allowing many people to avoid serious news coverage altogether:
There's a long record of research in multiple disciplines (psychology, sociology, and political science to name a few) that thoroughly debunks the notion that we acquire political values and attitudes through a rational process.
And research into how we immerse ourselves in stories has demonstrated that we do not process ideas in entertainment the same way we process information— we react on a more emotional level, at a distance from real world facts.
When we're consuming entertainment stories it's likely that we're more susceptible to politically relevant messages—we're relaxing, having fun, our political "guard" is down. Indeed, most people are largely unaware of the politically relevant content of that which they watch or read because they are not looking for it. And certain politically relevant messages are so ubiquitous throughout our culture that they become invisible to us. Take the overwhelmingly positive portray of guns in US media— it's incredibly rare to see a hero without a gun.
One argument against Gierzynski's "Harry Potter Thesis" is that we are drawn toward entertainment that reflects our pre-existing beliefs — otherwise known as "selective exposure." Liberals, for instance, are the biggest fans of the Daily Show because it constantly skewers conservative views and the vapid coverage of "corporate-controlled big media." But Gierzynski says that argument doesn't usually apply to entertainment that is not overtly political:
We're often drawn to stories for reasons that may have nothing to do with our views. This may be its popularity, attention given to it in the media, critical reviews, special effects, advertising, boredom, inadvertent exposure when we have little choice— the reasons go on. And once we're immersed in the book, TV programe, film or whatever, once we've come to identify with certain characters we are, as communications scholars have demonstrated, likely to internalize the lessons of the narrative, and emulate the qualities of those with whom we identify.
Selective exposure is also complicated by the fact that the politically relevant lessons of a narrative or the qualities of fictional characters are not always evident early on in the story. And they may evolve throughout it. Take that of Darth Vader, a cultural icon of evil, for example – he turns out to still have some good in him at the end. Or there's the Cylons of the recent reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, who evolve from genocidal robots to a form of intelligent life deserving acceptance and tolerance.
Gierzynski says he has preliminary results from two other recent studies that further support this view. One study found that exposure to different types of science fiction and fantasy villains affected attitudes about criminal justice. And another that found that viewers of Game of Thrones and House of Cards were are less likely to believe in a just world.