Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Harry Potter and the Illusion of Potential

A variant of this post first appeared on my Psychology Today blog on November 16, 2010.

Why is the story of Harry Potter so appealing? The success of the series depends on engaging characters and compelling storytelling-it’s a classic tale of good vs. evil and a coming of age story. That’s true, but many stories have those qualities. I think there’s a deeper magic at work here, one that capitalizes on a pervasive cognitive illusion. It’s a cognitive illusion that underlies almost all fantasy (and much science fiction) writing and that contributes to the success of countless movies and television shows. It involves a sort of wish fulfillment.

As a child, I fantasized about how my life would change if I suddenly discovered my “Spiderman” powers and could scale buildings. Or, I envisioned how radically my life would change if I could figure out how to teleport myself instantly from one location to another (most of that fantasizing emerged when I was trudging home from school). Perhaps you have had similar fantasies, or maybe yours were more mundane: imagining discovering you had tremendous athletic prowess at a sport you had never tried or that you would be a virtuoso musician if you just found the right instrument.

We all, at times, fall prey to the illusion of potential-the belief that we can acquire skills or abilities with minimal effort or practice. The illusion of potential relies on the corollary belief that we have vast pools of untapped brain power just waiting to be released. The myth that we only use 10% of our brain is a direct statement of this idea. Hucksters use the belief in untapped potential to sell everything from miracle exercise regimens (great results with minimal effort) to ultra-fast speed reading. Self-claimed psychics argue that they discovered their abilities. Mentalists and magicians know that their audiences are likely to find appeals to untapped potential compelling and use them liberally in their patter.

Not surprisingly, popular culture gives people what they want. The idea of untapped potential is a staple of fantasy books and movies. In fact, it might well be the defining feature of classic fantasy writing; the central character discovers a hidden ability they didn’t know they had. One of the common features of science fiction writing involves changing one element of how the universe works and then playing out the consequences. In many cases, that defining characteristic involves untapped potential (e.g., Verner Vinge’s brilliantly conceived idea of “Focus” in his award-winning novels A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness In The Sky).

The theme of untapped potential pervades television dramas. The subtitle of NBC’s hit series Heroes actually restates the definition of untapped potential: “ordinary people discovering extraordinary abilities.” The success of Heroes inspired a slew of shows with the same theme: CBS’s The Mentalist features a detective with “unusual powers of observation,” ABC’s Section 8 was about “especially brainy individuals,” and Fox’s Lie to Me centers on “a man who uses his preternatural skill at reading body language to help solve mysteries.” (Note that Lie to Me is based loosely on Paul Ekman, a prominent psychologist and expert on face perception. If Ekman has exceptional skill in reading faces, it’s because he spent decades studying and training, not because he had some secret talent.) The “untapped potential” plotline is one of the oldest forms of narrative, the rags-to-riches story in which a character finds themselves suddenly transformed, revealing the princess hidden in the lowly servant.

The illusion of potential and the fantasy of discovering hidden powers helps explain the exceptional popularity of Harry Potter. In the books, some people have magical abilities waiting to be revealed and other people are “muggles.” Yes, they hone those skills, but the abilities are there waiting to be discovered and released. That one element-the discovery of a previously unknown ability that reveals itself with little effort or work-is central to the story’s success. It taps our fantasies and cognitive illusions. The Harry Potter stories allow us to vicariously experience the ability to teleport ourselves home from school. It’s cognitive illusion wish fulfillment at its best.


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