No evidence children harmed by greater variety in LEGO minifig facial expressions

Mr. HydeWe’ve been studiously ignoring the rather ridiculous press coverage of a study published last month in the Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction. The study itself is simply a numerical analysis of minifig facial expressions from 1975 to 2010, concluding that facial expressions perceived by adults as “happy” have decreased over time in favor of “angry” faces and other emotions. It’s actually a rather interesting study, if you bother to read it.

But the media frenzy surrounding the study has been silly at best and consistently inaccurate — not necessarily about the trend toward more variety in minifig facial expressions but about the substance and conclusions of the study. One of the more moronic trends among the articles — or at least their headlines, which many people probably don’t read past — is claiming that the study says that the greater diversity in minifigure facial expressions is somehow harmful to children.

Conan O’Brian did a bit last night that is representative of the misunderstanding many people have about the issue. While Conan and his writers put the material to good comedic use, it reminded me that we might still want to post something about the study and the press coverage surrounding it. The story just doesn’t want to die!

Thankfully, not all the coverage is as idiotic as what you’ve probably seen on your local news. Scientific American editorial intern Arielle Duhaime-Ross has written an excellent blog post about the study and its media coverage, with insights into why people have been so attracted to the story.

She quotes one of the New Zealand researches as saying, “Our little LEGO study was never intended to give scientific evidence of the minifigures’ harmful effects — it cannot even give a hint.” Christoph Bartneck continues, “The media fights for our attention and one mechanism they use is to invoke fear.”

It’s this fear-mongering that I find so distasteful (and consistent with the controversy surrounding LEGO Friends). I’m no defender of the LEGO brand or corporation, nor do I always agree with the decisions they make — I’ve been advocating for more ethnic and gender diversity in minifigs for years, in fact — but I do take issue with bad journalism.

Head on over to to read Arielle’s post, and let us know what you think yourself in the comments.

12 comments on “No evidence children harmed by greater variety in LEGO minifig facial expressions

  1. aalenfae

    My main justification for this is that Lego has already made many “happy” faces. As time goes on, Lego has merely made a greater variety of emotions. Since “happy” faces have already been made, they’re simply covering the rest of the spectrum. Therefore, all the new ones tend to favor emotions that aren’t “happy”, because that ground has already been covered.

  2. wyldjedi

    I find this whole argument silly. As aalenfae said, there are more ranges of emotion being displayed now, not just smiley faces. That being said, I love the simplicity of the original minifigure faces. I have a whole slew of classic space and castle figures and they all have the original heads. Putting modern heads/expressions on older figures just feels wrong for some reason.

  3. Angeli

    There are people who don’t have anything better to do with their lives, there are people who think if they are inquisition no one will judge them, and there are just people with low IQ.

    They all have one thing in common – they are idjits (I love “Supernatural”;) if they think anybody normal is going to take them seriously, regarding this “face expression” story.

    When I was a kid Wile E Coyote destroyed mountains using dynamite, and we, kids, new it was a cartoon.

    Kid’s today are the same – parents are morons, or just lazy (or simply not good parents – long live House M.D.:). TEACH your child difference between good and bad, and it will have no problem with TV news, let alone with Lego minifigs expression… This is just a toy, lovely, beautifull, creative toy.

    …it is so trivial that I feel stupid even talking about it seriously :)

    I’m sorry if I was too harsh and offended anybody :)

  4. fallentomato

    While the media have obviously over-magnified this element of the study, I do feel that the scientists kind of set themselves up for this by putting some speculative bullsh*t in their conclusion:

    “We cannot help but wonder how the move from only positive faces to an increasing number of negative faces impacts how children play.”
    “LEGO might not be able to hold onto its highly positive reputation. The children that grow up with LEGO today will remember not only smileys, but also anger and fear in the Minifigures’ faces.”
    “Designers of agent faces should take great care to design the expressions and to test their effect since toys play an important role in the development of children.”

    I think they meant “An interesting area for future research would be the impact of increased agent facial variety on how children play.”

    You are absolutely right that there is a lot of bad journalism happening here (and make an apt paralell to the Friends controversy), but in my opinion there’s also some sloppy science writing at fault too.

  5. infrapinklizzard

    The media are a bunch of overworked english majors. I have known quite a few and they are not overwhelmingly science-literate as a rule. This type of coverage is unfortunately not very surprising.

    What I find more annoying is the design of the study. I do not have the mathematical chops to check their analysis, but there are a few other things I would have questions about.

    One is their apparent bias. On the plus side, they do seem to be at pains to explain in depth their procedures. However, there were a few places where an underlying bias shows through. The most telling slip is in the conclusions section. “So far LEGO *did at least* not produce classical military themes” (my emphasis).

    Another is the fact that they only have one positive rating category and many negative ones. There was no categories for “serious” or “determined” – categories that are not negative and yet seem to fit the exemplar for “Anger” in table V better than “anger”.

    This is what bothers me the most. Everyone starts with a hypothesis and some bias (though most do a better job of screening their comments in the conclusion), but if it interferes with the design of the study, then no amount of double-blinding will keep the results from being skewed.

    Of course, blathering on in the conclusions about things that they weren’t even studying didn’t help to suppress the natural hyperbole of the press.

  6. Creative Anarchy

    I think we would be unwise to dismiss the non-results of this study so quickly. The same year that Lego produced it’s first gun for a minifigure, violent crimes carried out by minors hit a 10 year peak. The month after pictures were leaked of the Lego Collectable skydiver miniature a man skydived from low orbit. Now this alarming figure head information comes to light and suddenly escalating diagnoses of Depression begin to make sense. It can be safely speculated that Lego controls our every action with these voodoo-like figures and that we are helpless pawns in their machinations, helpless but to follow their master plan of “Play Well”

  7. Pelko

    @Creative Anarchy: in that case I hope LEGO releases set 3001 “CLIMATE CHANGE FIX SUPERHEROES” real soon.

    (and set 3002 “PELKO DREAM HOUSE”)

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