LEGO toys have never been so controversial, or angry for that matter, but that should not stop your kids from playing with them. There has been a lot of noise over a study, released June 4, that looked into the evolution of the facial expressions printed on LEGO minifigures—those one and half-inch toy figurines that come with LEGO block sets. In the study, New Zealand researchers demonstrated that LEGO faces have become much more diverse in the past 35 years, but the finding that got the most attention is that LEGO is making more angry-looking minifigures than ever before, to a point where the proportion of angry faces rivals that of happy ones. But, contrary to what you might have read, the study did not look into the effect that these facial expressions are having on children and their emotional development. In fact, the study did not involve children at all.
“Our little LEGO study was never intended to give scientific evidence of the minifigures' harmful effects—it cannot even give a hint,” says Christoph Bartneck, design scientist and lead researcher of the LEGO study. How did this quirky LEGO study, part of the team's larger research effort to develop taxonomical models for LEGO minifigures, get so blown out of proportion?
“The media fights for our attention and one mechanism they use is to invoke fear," says Bartneck, citing headlines like “Are angry Legos harming our children?,” “Lego study Reveals angry faces on toys could influence your child’s negative behavior,” and “Lego creating more angry faces and it could harm children’s development.” Besides appealing to parental fears, however, these headlines hint at something much more bothersome: most reporters didn't bother to read the study.
"Around 20 percent of reporters read the study beforehand," estimates Bartneck. “The bad ones just copied what everybody else was writing.” This is unfortunate, because the findings of this study are interesting in their own right.
The researchers note, for instance, that the imaginary LEGO world has become increasingly more complex. LEGO minifigures no longer fall squarely in classic “good” and “evil” categories as children can now interact with scared-looking heroes or villains with “superior smiles.” In addition, LEGO is now producing more faces with different facial expressions than ever before. This might actually be a cost-cutting measure, the scientists say, where creating different face prints is likely less expensive than creating new torso prints.
Finally, by asking 264 adults to analyze the facial expressions printed on LEGO minifigures manufactured between 1975 and 2010, the scientists found that adults interpreted LEGO emotions differently when the heads where placed on a body—giving the facial expressions more context—than when viewed unattached. Anger was perceived more frequently when the head was attached to a body, but adding a body decreased the frequency of how often adults categorized a face as disgusted, sad or surprised.
This brings us to a central issue surrounding this study: It’s all about perception. In most cases, the way the adults interpreted the faces varied widely because LEGO faces are, in fact, extremely nuanced.
Reaching a conclusion about the effects of these toys on children, however, isn’t easy. Journalist Jordan Gaines looked into the question and point outs in an article for Scitable that children react very differently to facial expressions compared with adults. One 2001 study, writes Gaines, demonstrated that, contrary to adults, children's brains react more strongly to neutral faces than fearful ones. But there exists very little literature that addresses the specific effect of angry-looking toys on children. And results of studies that have looked into the effect of violent games and toys are mixed.
If parents are truly worried about the impact of angry-faced LEGO on their children, however, they can opt to follow the advice a LEGO communications manager gave a Guardian newspaper reporter and “just switch heads with another figure.” But before we start popping the heads off of pirates and sorcerers, we might want to ask ourselves why we are so taken by this particular story, especially when most kids can't get enough of “Angry Birds.”