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The Harry Potter Effect: The Science Behind Why We Like Magical Things

What Harry Potter tells us about our brains

If there is one thing psychologists can learn from the Harry Potter phenomenon, it is that people love magic. J. K. Rowling's richly developed world of wizards and mystical creatures and magical spells draws the reader in. But we all know that such magic remains within the pages of those stories, right? Do people actually believe that magic exists in the real world? Recent research suggests that not only do people believe in magic, it is likely hard-wired into our brains and can have some interesting consequences.

The human mind is designed to look for patterns, to identify connections between life experiences. Imagine you stop at a new food truck that is parked in town and order a fish taco. Then two hours later you find yourself hugging your porcelain throne (the toilet). Your brain is designed to look for a causal explanation for your sudden bout of nausea, and in this case, the new taco stand seems like a likely source. By identifying a cause for your sickness, you would know to avoid that particular food truck next time they come into town. So being able to link things in a causal way is beneficial for human survival. But it also means that we may mistakenly think that things are connected when they are not.

Ever have someone tick you off and in return you give them the "evil eye" or secretly chant an evil curse in your mind? You may secretly hope that these evil curses have any effect, but do you think they really do? To examine this possibility, Pronin and colleagues (2006) designed a series of clever experiments to determine whether college-educated people could be tricked into believing they had such powers of mind control. In one of my favorite psychology studies of all time, participants were

given a voodoo doll and asked to play the role of a witch doctor by placing pins into the doll's head. These people were told that the voodoo doll represented another fellow student that they had met a few minutes earlier. For half of the participants, this earlier interaction with the "victim" had been friendly. But for the other half, the "victim" had been a jerk: he arrived to the study late, showed up wearing a "Stupid people shouldn't breed" T-shirt, littered, and tapped his pen incessantly against his desk. You can believe that participants in this condition were giving him the evil eye by the end of the interaction! So after this interaction, all participants were given the voodoo doll and pin and instructed to pierce the doll while in the presence of the "victim." Minutes later the victim reported having a headache and participants were asked to indicate how much they felt they had caused this victim harm. As expected, the people who had interacted with the rude guy, and therefore had negative thoughts about him, were more likely to claim they had been the one that "caused" his headache.

But as we know from Harry Potter, there is just as much good magic as there is bad magic. So

Pronin and colleagues wanted to see if magical thinking works with wishes as well as it worked for curses. To test this, they had participants watch as another individual tried to shoot basketballs into a hoop. Sometimes the participant was instructed to mentally cheer the shooter on and at other times the participant was instructed to imagine the shooter failing. It was only when the participant cheered the shooter on, and then the shooter made the basket, that the participant reported "feeling responsible" for the player's success. In this case, the participant believed she actually helped the shooter, when in reality her thoughts had nothing to do with the shooter's success. For those sports fans who are reading, this scenario should sound really familiar!

Importantly, the results of this study offer a clue as to why the average person believes in magic. We constantly have access to the thoughts that knock around in our heads, so therefore our own thoughts are often the thing that is most salient in a situation. And when those salient thoughts seem to be consistent with an event (I think about that stop light turning green and then it does), our mind automatically makes a causal connection (I must have caused the light to turn green). Thus, we are hard-wired to overestimate our control over external events.

In addition to this cognitive explanation, there is also a more motivational explanation as to why we believe in magic. The truth is that magic makes us feel like we have more control over our lives than we really do. If you attended college, then you likely know the excruciating pain of waiting to hear if you have been accepted into the school of your dreams. For those few weeks in April, you find yourself checking the mailbox six times a day and simultaneously praying for and cursing the mailperson. And the worst part is that at that stage of the application process, there isn't anything else you can do to improve your odds of acceptance. Your life is now in the hands of the applicant committee, and their decision could dramatically change the trajectory of your career. Nobody likes feeling that out of control, especially when it comes to a major life decision. So to cope with this unbearable pain, we often develop superstitious thinking as a way to trick ourselves into thinking we have more control that we actually do. One such superstitious belief is the reluctance to "tempt fate."

Tempting fate is often thought to occur when people become too confident about an event and therefore cause themselves bad luck. This is why people are often afraid to comment on a streak of success in fear that they will "jinx" themselves. Or why people think that it is more likely to rain if they bring their umbrella to work or wash their car. Even people who insist there is no such thing as bad luck experience that "gut feeling" that tempting fate increases the odds of a bad outcome. For instance, people who don't believe in luck intuitively report that exchanging a lottery ticket for a new one makes the original ticket more likely to win. And oftentimes, this gut feeling comes so quickly, we don't even recognize its impact on our decision making. For instance, in a study by Rozin and Gilovich (2008), participants read a series of short stories on a computer and then had to decide as quickly as possible if the ending that appeared on the next screen was a logical conclusion to the story or if it was completely irrelevant.

So imagine you are a participant in this study and you read the following story:
Jon recently finished applying to graduate school and of all the schools he applied to, Stanford was his top choice. Typical of his mother's optimistic nature, she sent him a Stanford T-shirt and when it came in the mail, Jon decided to wear it the next day.

Now imagine you click to the next screen and as quickly as possible, you have to decide if this sentence presents a logical ending to Jon's story:
A month later, Jon receives a rejection letter from Stanford.

As expected, people who read that Jon wore the shirt his mother bought them were faster at tapping the button to indicate this was a logical end to the story. When participants instead read that when Jon receives the shirt, he stuffed it in the bottom of his dresser drawer, it took them longer to tap the button. This result tells us that not only are we hard-wired to thinking in magical terms; we do it quickly and automatically.

So whether you are a wizard or a Muggle, odds are you believe in magic and this belief plays a bigger role in your life than you might think. You may just be unwilling to admit it unless you are seated in a movie theater or your nose is tucked into the pages of a Harry Potter book.

Suggested Readings:

Pronin, E., Wegner, D. M., McCarthy, K., & Rodriguez, S. (2006). Everyday magical powers: The role of apparent mental causation in the overestimation of personal influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 218-231.

Risen, J. L. & Gilovich, T. (2008). Why people are reluctant to tempt fate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 293-307.