Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

What’s the Real Secret of Harry Potter, and How Can You Use It?

The mystery behind J.K. Rowlings’ magic

Over the past seven months, my seven-year-old and I have avidly devoured the full seven volumes of J.K. Rowling’s wondrously magical Harry Potter series. You might think that after 4091 pages of hearing about Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger, the little fellow would have been ready to move on, but last night he was sorely disappointed to remember that we had finished the seventh, and final, volume the night before. I must admit that I was at least as disenchanted as he was. What makes the Harry Potter series so immensely psychologically appealing to young and old readers alike? (The books have sold over 400 million copies, and magically transfigured Rowling from an unemployed and newly divorced mother into a billionaire philanthropist.)

I just asked my 7-year-old what he thought was the main message of the Harry Potter. His response “Good always wins out over bad.” 

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My 33-old-son Dave, who has also read all the books and seen the movies, responded that it has a lot more to do with the psychological appeal of magic to us muggles (as he explains on his own blog on Psych Today [today], anticipating the cinematic release of the last installment of the movie series this Friday).

Potter’s appeal is a testimony to an argument Dave and I have made earlier about movies–that the greatest of them tap into our most fundamental evolved motivations (see links below). Our brains and the sensory systems that feed them are designed not simply to sweep in random information, but to selectively, and voraciously, search out particular kinds of information–of the sort that helped our ancestors survive and ultimately reproduce. Living in interdependent and interrelated social groups who often encountered members of other groups of muggles (who might be enemies or potential allies), our ancestors needed to be attentive to friendship and betrayal, to who might be plotting to win power, to who might be potential lovers or potential interlopers, and to how their close relatives were doing. Different modules in our brains absorb those different kinds of information, and Harry Potter feeds those modules with the same delicious intensity that Ben and Jerry nourish our desires for sweet calorie rich foods. 

Solving the Mystery

I’m going to comment briefly on another feature of Rowling’s writing – a feature that my friend and colleague Bob Cialdini argues we import into scientific writing – the addictive appeal of mystery.

Cialdini discovered the power of mystery when he was working on his own book of popular science.  He began by going to the library and finding a pile of books written by academics for non-academics.  Bob copied the sections of those books that he felt worked best, and tried to discern what separated the exciting from the boring writing. Besides the usual candidates–avoiding jargon-filled writing and lack of clarity, for example, he noticed that the best sections always began with a mystery story. He incorporated the use of mystery into his own writing, and did it work? Well, the book (Influence: The psychology of persuasion) has since sold over 2 million copies. When he and I sat down with Steve Neuberg to write a social psychology textbook, Cialdini convinced the two of us to use the same approach in our textbook–to open each chapter with a story that raised a mystery for the students–a puzzle that could be solved by reading through the research in the chapter itself. Although our social text has not sold as many copies as Harry Potter, the book has gone through five editions, and I’ve heard heartening amounts of praise about the writing from students and professors alike, who often say it doesn’t read like a typical textbook (some recognize the mystery trick, some just enjoy the ride). 

Rowling is a master of mystery. At every step of the Potter series, she raises questions in the reader’s mind. Why is Potter able to read the thoughts and feelings of Lord Voldemort (the violently sadistic megalomaniac intent on using Dark Magic in the most dastardly ways possible)? Is Albus Dumbledore (the brilliant and wise headmaster of Hogwarts academy of withcraft and wizardry) wrong in trusting the arrogant and disdainful Severus Snape (who seems to do everything in his power to make life miserable for young Harry Potter)? Will Harry be able to find and destroy the Horcruxes (symbolic objects that contain parts of Voldemort’s broken soul)? Will Voldemort, whose power keeps increasing as the story unfolds, win in the end? It is not until the end of the final book that all the many mysteries are fully resolved.

We are here today because our ancestors were adept at solving mysteries, at analyzing other people’s hidden motives, and at figuring out what’s really going on below the surface. Cialdini points out that great scientific writing plays up the fact that science itself involves solving mysteries. And the appeal of mystery can magically transform a bored student into an avid science fan. 

Doug Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature. You can read reviews of it in The Guardian and The Washington Post, and it was chosen as a monthly selection by Scientific American Book Club.

Reference

Cialdini, R.B. (2005). What’s the Best Secret Device for Engaging Student Interest?  The Answer is in the Title Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 2005, 24, 22-29.

Kenrick, D.T., Neuberg, S.L., & Cialdini, R.B. (2010).  Social psychology: Goals in interaction (5th ed.).  Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Related Links 

The Caveman Goes to Hogwarts 

The Caveman Goes to Hollywood: Cinema through an evolutionary lens

Avatar 3D: Evolutionary psychology goes to Hollywood. 

 

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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