Claims angry Lego faces could upset children

Thursday June 13 2013

"Lego characters are getting angrier – and could be harming children's development," reports the Daily Mail.

Its report is based on a study that asked over 250 adults in the US to rate the emotion on the faces of more than 600 different Lego minifigures (affectionately known as "minifigs"). It found that most faces are happy, but that anger is also a common expression. Initially very different heads were produced, with the first face from 1975 being rated as sad, and the next few produced in the late 1970s and early 80s rated as happy.

Over time, the proportion of happy faces has declined. This increase has been partially driven by an increasing tendency towards cross-branding, such as Star Wars Lego, with some minifigs representing "baddies", rogues and warriors from these films.

Importantly, the study did not look at what impact the faces had on a child’s emotions. It is a great stretch to say that they may be “harming children’s development”.

You could also make the point that children actually enjoy an angry villain. Children’s fiction is full of infamous examples, ranging from Captain Hook to Voldemort.

A final piece of advice, provided by Lego, is that parents who are concerned “can always just switch heads with another figure”.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the Human Interface Technology Laboratory New Zealand at the University of Canterbury, and the Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements in Poland. No sources of funding were reported.

The study appears to be a written summary of a presentation to be given at a scientific conference on how humans interact with objects that are designed to represent personalities. It is unclear whether the study has been peer-reviewed.

The media coverage has tended to overinterpret the findings of this research, with the lead researcher’s suggestion that angry faces could affect a child’s emotional development being accepted uncritically.

Also, The Guardian reports that “there were risks involved in exposing children to a variety of emotions, with small fans likely to remember the anger and fear in their figurines' faces, as well as their happier moments”. It is not clear how the paper came to include this statement, as the study did not assess children at all. In fact, only The Daily Telegraph explicitly reported in its text that the study only included adults.

The BBC News coverage includes a balancing comment from the author that it is "hard to derive a causal relationship" between angry toys and children's behaviours.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional study looking at people’s perception of the emotion shown on Lego figures’ faces. The researchers were interested in whether the types of faces on Lego figures had changed over the last 35 years, and if perception of the face varies if the whole body of the figure is shown. The researchers are from a laboratory that looks at “developing and commercialising technology that improves human computer interaction”, with the ultimate goal of improving users’ experience.

Therefore, the study did not really focus on health issues or child development as such. It suggested that their study may help other researchers to understand the effect of the figures’ appearance on users over time, and also to inform design of other faces in game and toys.

What did the research involve?

The researchers took a sample of Lego figure faces over the years, and asked people what emotions the face expressed to see if the types of expression changed over time.

The researchers photographed all 3,655 Lego minifigures released between 1975 and 2010. They identified 628 heads with different faces used on these figures, and identified the year in which the head was first introduced. They used all of these faces in their study. They also randomly selected 100 heads and a minifigure with that head for use in their survey. They excluded six heads where the face was largely obscured, for example by a helmet. They also presented one figure (a Harry Potter figure) with two different skin colours – the traditional Lego yellow or a “natural” peach-coloured skin tone.

The researchers recruited 264 adults in the US through a website that enables people and businesses to ask other people to do tasks that computers are not capable of doing (called Human Intelligence Tasks).

They used the website to present the isolated faces and minifigures in a random order, with 30 people asked to rate each face. The participants were asked to rate which of these six emotions each face expressed:

  • anger
  • fear
  • disgust
  • happiness
  • sadness
  • surprise

They were asked to rank on a five-point scale (similar to a Likert scale) how intensely the face showed the emotion, ranging from “weak” to “intense”. The participants could rate as many of the faces as they liked and they were paid one cent per face they rated.

For each face, the researchers identified the dominant emotion for each face by finding which emotion was most commonly reported as being present. The researchers then looked at whether the figures’ faces had changed in the emotions shown over time. They also looked at whether presenting a face with the body of the figure changed perception of the face’s emotion.

What were the basic results?

The researchers found that each face was reported as expressing about four different emotions on average. The dominant emotion on most faces was happiness (324 faces) followed by anger (192 faces).

The number of different faces produced has increased over time, from fewer than five faces each year up to 1988, to more than 90 in 2010. From the early 1990s there was an increase in the variety of facial emotions shown by the minifigures. In 1975, the faces produced were all rated as sad, while in 1978 and 1980 all were rated as happy. However, in these years, only very few faces were produced. The proportion of happy faces released in each year decreased over time as more different and more varied faces were introduced.

If the figure’s body was shown as well as the face, anger tended to be reported more frequently, and disgust, sadness and surprise less frequently.

The minifigure’s skin colour did not affect which emotion was perceived on the face.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded 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 suggest that face designers should take care in designing the expressions and to test their effect “since toys play an important role in the development of children”. However, they also say that to appeal to users the faces need to offer a wide range of emotions “that connect to the complex interaction scenarios of today’s users”.


Overall, this research suggests that Lego figures’ faces have changed over time. This is a finding that is unlikely to surprise parents (or big kids of a certain age). The default minifig of old (described in the study as having an “enigmatic smile”) is now just part of a much larger family of minifigs including pirates, Star Wars “imperial stormtroopers” and ninjas.

So, as more faces have been produced it is unsurprising that a larger variety of emotions has been shown on the faces – particularly as minifigs now more commonly represent warriors. This study only assessed adults’ responses to the faces, and children’s perceptions of the faces may differ.

The study did not look at how children perceived the faces’ emotions or what impact the faces had on a person’s own emotions. The study doesn’t tell us anything about how the faces might potentially impact the health or development of children or adults playing with the figures. Therefore, it is a great stretch to say that they may be “harming children’s development” or are a “possible cause for concern”.

As the Lego manufacturer suggested in The Guardian, parents who might be concerned “can always just switch heads with another figure” (however, wary parents may want to consider the emotional effects of decapitating their children’s toys).

There are also studies suggesting that playing with Lego – or other toys designed to stimulate creativity, planning and building skills – can play a positive role in a child’s development.

Read more about why play is important.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Choices