For readers of Harry Potter, there may only be one person more scary than Voldemort, the evil wizard referred to as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: Donald Trump.
Dr. Mutz had previously studied the influence of fictional television portrayals on people’s beliefs — whether watching an episode of Law & Order where it’s clear the wrong person was put behind bars affected your opinion of the criminal justice system, she gave as an example. As part of a survey of the electorate she has been conducting since 2008, she decided to study Harry Potter’s influence on political beliefs when she had some extra space for questions.
“Even though people know it’s just fiction, it raises in their mind the possibility that mistakes can happen and in that way, alters their real-world policy attitudes,” Mutz tells Philadelphia magazine. “So it didn’t seem beyond the possible that something as popular as Harry Potter could have such an influence. Most of the time we can’t do observational research because the audience for any one storyline that might be out there is pretty small. Harry Potter is unusual in its widespread popularity.”
The study found that, yes, reading Harry Potter does lower your opinion of Donald Trump and makes you less likely to vote for him. That’s right: Reading Harry Potter turns Donald Trump into He-Who-Must-Not-Be-President.
The more novels one has read in the Harry Potter series — there are seven — the stronger the effect. Why? Perhaps because Potter and his friends have a strong moral code, something that Trump does not appear to possess. The study theorizes:
The wizard protagonists also avoid the use of curses for killing, for torture, and for the ability to control another. In contrast, Voldemort is willing to kill many times in order to split his soul into seven horcruxes and attain immortality; the ends justify the means. Harry Potter, on the other hand, refuses to kill, even in his final battle with Voldemort. Instead, Potter resorts to disarming his enemies as his major means of protection.
Donald Trump again aligns more with Voldemort than Potter, suggesting that “torture works” and that if elected president he will bring back waterboarding, which he has dubbed a “minimal form of torture.” As one headline put it, “Donald Trump is running to be America’s next top torture president.” He has even advocated killing the families of terrorists as a means of deterrence.
The study controlled for previous party identification, gender, education level, age, evangelical self-identification, and social dominance orientation. Even when doing so, reading one Harry Potter book lowered respondents’ opinion of Donald Trump by about 2-3 points on a 100-point scale. Read all seven Harry Potter books, says Mutz, and that adds up.
GfK KnowledgePanel conducts the studies for Mutz, who had her study published in a special issue of PS: Political Science & Politics. (“You can point out a correlation between any two variables at any time you want and make claims about it but that’s a different kind of thing than going through a review process,” she says.)
“Within political science and research on political communication we greatly understudy the potential for fictional television, movies and so forth to have an influence,” Mutz says. “We’re just accustomed to studying the news media. These days, what we know is that people spend a heck of a lot more time with fictional stories than they do with news media … They go on Netflix and they watch a movie or something. Given that so much of what we’re exposed to is fictional, it seems like the underlying messages in those fictional programs are worthy of research attention as well.”
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