When a researcher in New Zealand decided to look at changes in the faces of LEGO minifigures over the past 35 years, he inadvertently made a stunning and unexpected finding: Angry-faced LEGO minifigures show a strong link to bad journalism.
Who knew that a plastic figurine the size of a medium binder clip, with a barrel head and blocky legs and feet, could so rattle science journalism?
Arielle Duhaime-Ross at Scientific American was nice enough to collect for us a few examples of bad journalism spawned by the study. "Are Angry LEGOs Harming Our Children?" asked Popular Science. Medical Daily was more declarative: "Legos Study Reveals Angry Faces On Toys Could Influence Your Child's Negative Behavior," it wrote. This worry was also picked up at news.com.au, which wrote, "Lego creating more angry faces and it could harm children's development – researcher."
These three terrific stories missed only one small detail: The study in question had nothing to do with children. There were no children in it. No children were asked about it. It was not done by children. I'm guessing that not many children read it. No children were harmed during production.
The study was about, oddly enough, LEGO minifigures. Christoph Bartneck of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and his colleagues looked for changes in minifigures since they were introduce in 1975. That doesn't say anything about children, although it might say something about Bartneck and company–they report that they "photographed all the 3,655 minifigures that were released between 1975 and 2010."
The researchers catalogued the facial expressions using "a k-cluster analysis" that "shows that toy design has become a more complex design space in which the imaginary world of play does not only consist of a simple division of good versus evil, but a world in which heroes are scared and villains can have [a] superior smile." They also found that the impression a face made depended upon what kind of body it was plugged on to.
Whether any of the changes in LEGO figures have an effect on children is an interesting question, but it's not one that was asked or answered by this study. The researchers made that point very clearly: "We cannot help but wonder how the more from only positive faces to an increasing number of negative faces impacts how children play," they wrote. Note the verb–they wonder. Like the rest of us, they don't know. And nobody should have reported that they do.