Are Lego Faces Really Getting Angrier?

Slate's Culture Blog
June 11 2013 3:32 PM

Are Lego Faces Really Getting Angrier?

Lego heads.
Lego heads

Photo by Holly Allen

Think back on your experiences with Lego men and Lego women. Probably you have happy memories of the time you spent with those tiny figures (official name: Minifigures) with yellow faces (or, if you’ve played with Lego toys in the past decade, faces of many colors). But a new study reports an ominous finding. “The children that grow up with Lego today will remember not only smileys, but also anger and fear in the Minifigures’ faces.”

Is that such a bad thing? The people behind the study—a team of researchers led by Christoph Bartneck of the University of Canterbury—“obtained images of all 3655 Minifigure types manufactured by LEGO between 1975 and 2010. The 628 different heads on these figures were then shown to 264 adult participants,” who labeled “the emotions on the heads in terms of the six main human emotions.”

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Their findings? While the “vast majority” have happy faces, “the trend is for an increasing proportion of angry faces, with a concomitant reduction in happy faces,” as Christian Jarrett explains in his summary of the study for Research Digest. Hence the researchers’ concern about our children’s futures. They connect this finding with the “considerable array of weapon systems” that are now part of the Lego family, with the toys “moving towards more conflict based play themes.”

Less trumpeted is the fact that each face “received an average of 3.9 emotion labels,” i.e., there was a lot of disagreement about what each face was communicating. And no surprise. Just look at the faces above (assembled by the son of one of my Slate colleagues, a Lego face enthusiast)! The real lesson here, I think, is that today’s children are growing up at a time of unparalleled Lego diversity. (Many of the faces have two different expressions, printed on opposite sides.)

And there’s at least one bit of indisputable good news in the research team’s findings. While attaching the faces to “a body tended to increase ratings for anger and happiness but reduce ratings for disgust and sadness,” skin color “made no difference.”

Watch Slate's Occupy Lego parody: 

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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