The story of Harry Potter has bewitched readers around the world, and 2017 marked a number of key publication anniversaries for the series. It was the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first book in the United Kingdom and the 10th anniversary of the final book, The Deathly Hallows. Author J. K. Rowling also set the final (epilogue) chapter of the series in 2017. Although the series has now come to an end, the passing of the decades has done little to diminish the popularity of the stories from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; since their initial release, 450 million copies of the books have been sold worldwide, the series has been translated into 79 languages, and the franchise is estimated to be worth 25 billion dollars (Gray, 2017, p.12).
The economic success of the Harry Potter franchise has been much noted, but less recognized is the fact that this seven-volume series has also provided a veritable Room of Requirement for scholars. Although psychologists and other researchers have also drawn inspiration from series like The Lord of the Rings and the Twilight series, Harry Potter reigns supreme.
Psychoanalysts were quick to note not only the obvious phallic imagery of all those snakes and wands (and even of the phoenix; Rosegrant, 2009), but also the Oedipal overtones of a story that revolved around a young boy whose mother protected him with her love even as his father was killed (Noel-Smith, 2001). Thus, they argued, we can all identify with this fantasy, even while satisfying the reality principle in our recognition that it is, after all, only a story (Noel-Smith, 2001). The series follows the traditional fairy tale formula for the unlikely hero, but casts old ideas into new forms as Boggarts take advantage of unconscious fears and Dementors break through the barriers of repression, haunting our consciousness with our most awful memories (Noctor, 2006). In this reading, Tom Riddle/Voldemort is cast as the embodiment of the “bad” parts of Harry and his parents (Noel-Smith, 2001) and as what Harry could have been had he not transcended narcissism (Rosegrant, 2009). In this symbolic world, Hogwarts itself has been argued to represent the therapeutic environment, and the potential relevance of this symbolic representation of the human condition has even resulted in Harry Potter-themed group therapy sessions (Noctor 2006).
The events in the books have provided models of recognized psychological phenomena for other psychologists as well. You-Know-Who left his mark on psychology as “Development and Dark Wizards: Teaching Psychopathology with Lord Voldemort” explores the case of Tom Marvolo Riddle through the lens of antisocial personality disorder (Lis & Tuineag, 2017), and developmentalists have suggested that the Harry Potter series illustrates developmental concerns across the lifespan, from underage drinking (Welsh, 2004, 2007) to perspectives on cognitive aging (Stine-Morrow, 2007).
Readers’ responses to the series have also intrigued psychologists. Books have a way of capturing our imagination, leading us to invest emotionally in a world that does not exist and opening our minds to new ideas. As a result, researchers have also studied Harry Potter fans. For example, lacking access to a Sorting Hat, personality psychologists have instead investigated “Harry Potter and the Measures of Personality: Extraverted Gryffindors, Agreeable Hufflepuffs, Clever Ravenclaws, and Manipulative Slytherins” (Crysel, Cook, Schember, & Websterd, 2015), and Muggle researchers without access to Pensieves have instead used fMRI (Hsu, Jacobs, Altmann, & Conrad, 2015; Hsu, Jacobs, Citron, & Conrad, 2015; Hsu, Jacobs, & Conrad, 2015) and ERP (Yang & Xue, 2014) to study how the brain reacts when reading passages from the series. Certainly, the finding that the emotional connections we feel when reading a book have physical underpinnings to them (Hsu, Conrad, & Jacobs, 2014) is the stuff of spell-binding research.
Social psychologists have also found relevant material in readers’ responses to the world that J. K. Rowling created. For example, “participants who read about wizards psychologically become wizards,” whether their self-perceived wizardliness is assessed using implicit or explicit measures (Gabriel & Young, 2011, p. 990). Researchers have also shown that affirmation of or threats to fan identity can affect engagement with related tasks, like creative essay writing (Groene & Hettinger, 2016). Other psychologists have argued that patterns of identification (in this case identification with Harry and also disidentification with Voldemort) can help account for “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter”—the series’ potential for decreasing prejudice, even toward stigmatized groups in the nonmagical world (Vezzali, Stathi, Giovannini, Capozza, & Trifiletti, 2015).
Cognitive psychologists have established that even young children can differentiate between historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and fantasy characters like Harry Potter (Corriveau, Kim, Schwalen, & Harris, 2009), but the “unreal” status of Harry Potter has not prevented cognitive researchers from availing themselves of the unique opportunities provided by the popularity of this series. Researchers have demonstrated, for example, that even preschool-aged children recognize that Harry Potter’s glasses would be worth more than the glasses of a noncelebrity (Gelman, Frazier, Noles, Manczak, & Stilwell, 2015) and several researchers have studied the serial position effect as it occurs in participants’ recollection of the book titles (Kelley, Neath, & Surprenant, 2013, 2014; Overstreet, Healy, & Neath, 2017).
The influence of Harry Potter is not unique to the social sciences; the contagion of Pottermania has also spread to the medical profession. One early line of research attempted to establish the genetic basis of the wizarding phenotype (Craig, Dow, & Aitken, 2005; Dodd, Hotta, & Gardner, 2005; Ramagopalan, Knight, Ebers, & Knight, 2007). Another spirited debate was focused on the most appropriate differential diagnosis for Harry’s headaches. This debate resulted in the publication of six articles in the journal Headache between 2007 and 2012. (Regrettably, none of the authors professed any affiliation with St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries so key diagnostic features of the case cannot be confirmed and the matter is not likely to be resolved to the satisfaction of the Muggle medical establishment any time soon.) But it is not just the doctors who have been affected. One article in an otolaryngology journal described the reconstruction of a patient’s collapsed nostrils—a condition the patient himself diagnosed as “Voldemort Deformity” (Kozin & Gliklich, 2014, p. 1078). And more recently researchers documented a significant decrease in the number of children presenting at a British emergency room with musculoskeletal injuries on the dates of the release of The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, presumably, the authors suggested, because so many had spent the weekend “petrified” on their sofas, reading (Gwilym, Howard, Davies, & Willett, 2015, p. 1506).
Researchers’ enchantment with Harry Potter has also impacted scientific etymology. First, paleontologists named a newly discovered dinosaur Dracorex hogwartsia, the “Dragon King of Hogwarts” (Bakker, Sullivan, Porter, Larson, and Saulsbury, 2006), an event Rowling herself described as “easily the most unexpected honor to have come my way since the publication of the Harry Potter books” (The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, 2014). Then came Eriovixia gryffindori, a spider from India that resembles a living sorting hat and so was named after Godric Gryffindor, the owner of said hat, “in an effort to draw attention to the fascinating, but oft overlooked world of invertebrates, and their secret lives” (Ahmed, Khalap, & Sumukha, 2016, p. 25). And now there is also Harryplax severus, actually named for Harry Conley—a Muggle Hagrid of sorts, and the person who first discovered the specimen—because of his “uncanny ability to collect rare and interesting creatures as if by magic” (Mendoza & Ng, 2017, p.26). The name, though, was also an allusion to Harry Potter and to Professor Severus Snape. Snape was singled out for this honor, the scientists said, because of “his ability to keep one of the most important secrets in the story, just like the present new species which… eluded discovery until now” (Mendoza & Ng, 2017, p.33). Although young readers may envy their wizarding friends’ coursework in Care of Magical Creatures, it is nice to know that anyone can study real-life versions of the Hungarian Horntail (The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, 2014) or the only spiders that even Ron Weasley might be able to love.
Of course, too much of a good thing can be bad, and readers’ enthusiasm for the series might sometimes morph into addiction or result in “post-Potter depression.” Indeed, a sizeable minority of online fans reported craving before the release of The Deathly Hallows and withdrawal and disrupted functioning as long as six months afterward, with 5% or more of respondents reporting spending four or more hours per day on Harry Potter related activities (Rudski, Segal, & Kallen, 2009). However, most readers seem to be “users” rather than addicts, enthusiasts whose engagement does not produce negative consequences and who may, in fact, actually reap consequent benefits ranging from opportunities for social interaction to inspiration for creative activity (Rudski et al., 2009). This seems to be the case for the researchers whose work is reviewed here. Harry Potter, “the Boy Who Lived,” lives on not only in online fandoms, but also in the world of research.
Ahmed, J., Khalap, R., & Sumukha, J. N. (2016). A new species of dry foliage mimicking Eriovixia Archer, 1951 from central western Ghats, India (Araneae: Araneidae). Indian Journal of Arachnology, 5(1–2), 24–27. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.208960
Bakker, R. T., Sullivan, R. M., Porter, V., Larson, P., & Saulsbury, S. J. (2006). Dracorex Hogwartsia, N. Gen., N. Sp., a spiked, flat-headed pachycephalosaurid dinosaur from the upper Cretaceous Hell Creek formation of South Dakota. In S. G. Lucas & R. M. Sullivan (Eds.), Late Cretaceous vertebrates from the Western Interior (Bulletin 35). Albuquerque, NM: New Mexico Museum of Natural History.
Corriveau, K. H, Kim, A. L, Schwalen, C.E., & Harris P.L. (2009). Abraham Lincoln and Harry Potter: Children’s differentiation between historical and fantasy characters. Cognition, 113, 213–225. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2009.08.007
Craig, J. M., Dow, R., & Aitken, M. (2005). Harry Potter and the recessive allele. Nature, 436, 776. https://doi.org/10.1038/436776a
Crysel, L. C., Cook, C. L., Schember, T. O., & Websterd, G. D. (2015). Harry Potter and the measures of personality: Extraverted Gryffindors, agreeable Hufflepuffs, clever Ravenclaws, and manipulative Slytherins. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 174–179. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.04.016
Dodd., A. N., Hotta, C. T., & Gardner, M. J. (2005). Harry Potter and the prisoner of presumption. Nature, 437, 318. https://doi.org/10.1038/437318d
Gabriel, S., & Young, A. F. (2011). Becoming a vampire without being bitten: The narrative collective-assimilation hypothesis. Psychological Science, 22, 990–994. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611415541
Gelman, S. A., Frazier, B. N., Noles, N. S., Manczak, E. M., & Stilwell, S. M. (2015). How much are Harry Potter’s glasses worth? Children’s monetary evaluation of authentic objects. Journal of Cognition and Development, 16, 97–117. https://doi.org/10.1080/15248372.2013.815623
Groene, S. L., & Hettinger, V. E. (2016). Are you ‘fan’ enough? Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5, 324–339.
Gray, P. (2017). Game change. In C. Howorth (Ed.), Harry Potter: Time goes inside the tale that enchanted the world (Time Special Edition, pp. 10–14). New York, NY: Time Books.
Gwilym, S., Howard, D. P. J., Davies, N., & Willett, K. (2015). Harry Potter casts a spell on accident prone children. The British Medical Journal, 331, 1505–1506. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1505
Hsu, C. T., Conrad, M, & Jacobs, A. M. (2014). Fiction feelings in Harry Potter: Haemodynamic response in the mid-cingulate cortex correlates with immersive reading experience. NeuroReport, 25, 1356–1361. https://doi.org/10.1097/WNR.0000000000000272
Hsu, C. T., Jacobs, A. M., Altmann, U., & Conrad, M. (2015). The magical activation of left amygdala when reading Harry Potter: An fMRI study on how descriptions of supra-natural events entertain and enchant. PLOS One, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118179
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Kelley, M. R., Neath, I., & Surprenant, A. M. (2014). A remember-know analysis of the semantic serial position function. The American Journal of Psychology, 127, 137–145.
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Heather A. Haas, PhD, is a professor of psychology at The University of Montana Western. Her research endeavors are split between psychology and paroemiology (i.e., the study of proverbs), and in 2011, she published an article titled "The Wisdom of Wizards—and Muggles and Squibs: Proverb Use in the World of Harry Potter" in the Journal of American Folklore. Dr. Haas is almost certainly a Hufflepuff, no matter how many students suspect that she is a Slytherin at heart.
Augustina Wofford is a junior at The University of Montana Western. She is double-majoring in visual arts and psychology with aspirations of going into either art therapy or marketing. Augustina first read the Harry Potter series as a sophomore in high school and immediately fell in love with the Wizarding World. She self-identifies as a Gryffindor, regardless of the countless sorting quizzes that have placed her in Ravenclaw.
Miranda Binns-Calvey is a senior and is double majoring in psychology and natural horsemanship. With her hometown being Chicago, she was a little nervous traveling so far to go to college, but was thrilled when she realized that Main Hall on The University of Montana Western campus looks a lot like Hogwarts. Miranda was first introduced to the Harry Potter books by her cousins when she was around eight and she has grown up with the characters. Miranda is thrilled to have been a part of such a fun and interesting article and, like the Gryffindor she is, she cannot wait to see what challenge awaits her next.
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