Harry Potter Houses: The science behind the fiction

We all love fiction. Heck, we love it so much that we gladly dive straight into our screens and books, and live vicariously the adventures of the characters. One such story is Harry Potter’s. In 1998, its magical world introduced the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry and its four houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, & Slytherin. Each new wizard begins their Hogwarts journey by being sorted into one of the houses by the Sorting Hat.

For the muggles (i.e. non-magical folk) who are reading, the houses are supposed to reflect on the members’ common personality traits. Gryffindors, for example, are courageous, brave, and chivalric. Hufflepuffs tend to be loyal, dedicated and patient. Ravenclaws are intelligent, creative, and witty. Slytherins show themselves as ambitious, resourceful, and cunning.

The Sorting Hat Song. Taken from Pinterest

Because they’re so distinctive, Hogwarts houses have become iconic within the world of the saga. They’re so popular that the official website includes a real-life version of the Sorting Hat’s questionnaire to find out to which house you belong.

We find this very curious from a psychological standpoint. Defining characters through their affiliation to a faction, an element, a district, a Greek deity, etc., is pretty common. Pop psychology loves to classify people into arbitrary categories. In every case, you’ll find that there’s an attempt to gauge people’s personalities based on fictional classes. And, what’s interesting is that they seem to hold true to some extent… Or do they?

fandom.net’s personality quiz that determined the different houses and classes you belonged to in various fictional worlds. Taken from Pinterest

This article aims to delve into the science behind fiction and assess the true value of fictional categories as measurements of personality. To do that, we’ll take the Harry Potter houses as a case study and show you whether and how they predict our individualities—to some extent, that is.

Does your house reveal something about you?

Researcher Laura Crysel and associates initially suggested that the Hogwarts houses were similar to established personality constructs, like the Big Five Traits, Need for Cognition, and the Dark Triad.[1]

The Big Five Personality Traits and The Dark Triad. Taken from Wikipedia & Medium

Harry Potter fans answered a series of questionnaires (real, scientific ones). The results showed a connection between the person’s assigned house traits and their actual personalities. Turns out, Hufflepuffs were more agreeable, while Ravenclaws had a higher need for cognition, and Slytherins scored higher on the Dark Triad (no relation to the Dark Arts!). Gryffindors were the only ones who didn’t show a correlation with their house traits (extraversion and openness). 

Now, this doesn’t mean we endorse the Sorting Hat as a psychological measure of personality. An attempt to replicate the study’s alleged relationship between personality and house traits has been less than successful.[2] Therefore, although fun, the Sorting Hat quiz is not a scientific tool of assessment.

We are more than our house

We are, however, ignoring an essential fact. In “The Chamber of Secrets”, Harry questions whether he really belongs in Gryffindor. The slithering thought of being more of a Slytherin frightened him. Professor Dumbeldore, as always, had a piece of wisdom to provide:

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”[3]

People who choose to improve aspects of their personality usually make those changes happen. It only requires a bit of motivation to undertake that transformation.[4] Both the original study and the replication converged on a particular finding: wanting to possess a specific trait made it more likely that you had it.

Motivation has been conceived to be focused on four main goals: defending, bonding, learning, and acquiring.[5,6] It just so happens that each of these roughly resembles the Hogwarts houses: Gryffindor (courage to protect), Hufflepuff (loyalty to close relationships), Ravenclaw (intelligence to learn), and Slytherin (resourcefulness to take control).

These four goals are known as the Four-Drive Theory. Taken from ManagerWise

Since our motivations shape our choices, the inclination to follow one of the four goals can determine how you shape your personality. In the studies, a majority of the participants got the house they desired. Even if they didn’t, the association between house and personality tended to follow whichever house they wanted. For example, those who related to the “helpful and trustworthy Hufflepuffs” scored high on agreeableness.[1,2]

In the most basic of terms, we can be whoever we want to be. Sure, psychology gives us personality type classifications like the Big Five or the MBTI, but the struggle to simplify personality into a few categories is a sore point for scholars. Harry’s internal conflict provides insight on how our personalities are, after all, not set in stone and can change if we so desire.

The dimensions of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Taken from Pinterest

We learn from fiction

Crysel et al.’s findings didn’t just limit to understanding personality via Harry Potter, but they also provided support for another crucial element: the connection we feel with a character or fictional universe expands way beyond its pages or the screen. In reality, it shapes us.[2]

Have you ever found yourself seeking advice from your favourite character when in a pinch? Have you asked yourself what would [insert your favourite character’s name] do? We have, for sure. This is because fiction is as much a part of us, as we are of fiction.

Hermione might be a good reference figure.

We fulfil our need to belong through stories. Reading about a group is enough to make you feel like a part of it. This phenomenon is known by the overly-long name of “narrative collective-assimilation hypothesis.[7] The media we consume models our self-concept and may also expand it to reach our ideal selves.[8,9] After reading excerpts from either Harry Potter or Twilight in a study, the participants identified with the magical being they read about in their passage—wizard or vampire.[7]

Robert Pattinson can definitely relate to both wizards and vampires though. Taken from Pinterest

To whom you relate also makes a difference. Children who identified with The Boy Who Lived over He Who Must Not Be Named showed better attitudes towards stigmatised groups, including refugees, immigrants, and those in the LGBTQIA+ community.[10]

This, of course, would extend to any story, fictional character, and group. When you have clear-cut categories that directly align with specific traits, it becomes easier to relate to them. That’s why we can become enthralled with Harry Potter: the houses give us a place to belong within its imaginary world, and can tell us a lot about a person without knowing them beforehand. 

The Bottom Line

Fiction may be a primary source from which people develop beliefs about their world. The house you get sorted into might or might not tell you something about yourself, but the traits you wish to possess (your choices) may do so. At the same time, the fiction you relate to and who you relate to can shape your actions. The stories we like the most are the ones with which we identify, and we ultimately shape ourselves through them, too. 

This means that we don’t just hope for our favourite stories to come true, we make them come true. And if we can make them come true, it’s once again important we seek Professor Dumbeldore’s wisdom: 

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Academic References

  1. Crysel, L. C., Cook, C. L., Schember, T. O., & Webster, 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.
  2. Jakob, L., Garcia-Garzon, E., Jarke, H., & Dablander, F. (2019). The Science Behind the Magic? The Relation of the Harry Potter “Sorting Hat Quiz” to Personality and Human Values. Collabra: Psychology, 5(1), 31.
  3. Rowling, J. (1999). Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets. Thorndike, Maine: Thorndike Press.
  4. Hudson, N., & Fraley, R. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits?. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 109(3), 490-507.
  5. Lawrence, P., & Nohria, N. (2002). Driven. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  6. Durayappah-Harrison, A. (2009). Harry Potter and Human Flourishing. Retrieved 22 September 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/thriving101/200907/harry-potter-and-human-flourishing
  7. Gabriel, S., & Young, A. (2011). Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten. Psychological Science, 22(8), 990-994.
  8. Sestir, M., & Green, M. (2010). You are who you watch: Identification and transportation effects on temporary self-concept. Social Influence, 5(4), 272-288.
  9. Shedlosky-Shoemaker, R., Costabile, K., & Arkin, R. (2014). Self-Expansion through Fictional Characters. Self And Identity, 13(5), 556-578.
  10. Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2014). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal Of Applied Social Psychology, 45(2), 105-121.

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