Lego figurines are increasingly being designed to look full of "anger" and "disdain," according to a group of New Zealand researchers. But before you throw the building blocks out with the bathwater and lose all faith in humanity over a long-time childhood staple, there's a logical explanation for why Legos are bringing out the bad in people. And it involves Harry Potter.
The study comes from Christoph Bartneck and Mohamad Obaid from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and from Karolina Zawiesk, who works at the Industrial Research Institute for Automation in Poland. The three scientists studied, cataloged, and photographed over 3,600 Lego figurines that the Denmark-based Lego Company released between 1975 and 2010. The researchers showed the toy faces to study subjects and asked people to judge what kind of emotion they interpreted as emanating from the inanimate toys.
Turns out, the number of happy Lego faces got smaller as the Lego brand grew up:
The two most frequent expressionsare happiness and anger and the proportion of happy faces is decreasing over time.
The evidence of the study is perhaps best summarized in this graph, which shows the dominance of "happy" Lego faces waning:
Here's the full breakdown of Obaid, Bartneck, and Zawieska's six key clusters of Lego face emotion:
On a philosophical level, those results can be interpreted as a bit sad. After all, Legos are supposed to encourage fun, creativity, and excitement in the brains of elementary school engineers. So are the famously yellow — and famously simple-faced — figurines reflecting our own "fear" and "anger" back at us? Well, not exactly.
The first thing you have to remember is that back in the 1970s, smiley faces were the only Lego faces that even existed. Case in point: this Lego Family from 1974....
Or, as the blogger at Toys2Remember reminded us, sometimes Lego people didn't have faces at all, like this 1977 Rescue Lego set:
The Astronaut Lego looks pretty happy next to this 1979 space radar truck:
And look how happy these knights are from the 1980s castle set:
They're almost as happy as the 1980s Starfire Lego dude:
Those are definitely little smiley faces staring back at you, because for a long time in Lego world, smiley-faced figurines were all you could buy. So if you're researching reactions to faces over time, the introduction of not-smiley faces would inherently bring down the proportion of "happy" reactions from the study group. And the New Zealand study even notes that new faces weren't fully introduced until the 90s — and that introduction made their study more difficult to map:
Only in the early 90s did the LEGO company start to produce a greater variety of faces ... This scatter makes it very difﬁcult to create a model that would adequately represent the development of faces over time.
Plus, it's not like the Lego Company was trying to mimic life as super violent or angry. As the authors of the study note, there is no Lego D-Day, Lego Desert Storm, or Lego Seal Team Six. But there are toy sets inspired by Harry Potter and Star Wars, and you kinda need sad faces to tell those stories. "Often a good force is struggling with a bad one. May it be the goodknights against the skeleton warriors or the space police againstalien criminals," the study states, explaining the necessity for those angry faces. Basically, Lego Harry fighting Voldemort wouldn't be the same if both them were grinning wildly. Blame pop culture, not your disdainful old self.
Obaid, Bartneck, and Zawieska note that even though they're concerned with the number of "angry"-inducing faces being produced, there's still no hard evidence on how these not-smiley affect they children (and adults!) who play with them — if they do it all. And there are bigger concerns here, people; for starters: Lego hair.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.