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Could it be the surest sign of the times yet? The yellow people that populate LEGO's land of coloured plastic building bricks are not as cheery as they used to be, according to a recent study.

What could possibly account for the grimaces, clenched teeth and panic: Have their LEGO homes gone into foreclosure? Was the visit to the LEGO hospital not covered by insurance? Did the LEGO pirate find a floating trash heap instead of sunken gold?

No, it seems the themed sets such as Harry Potter or Star Wars have helped contribute to a higher proportion of disconcerting expressions such as fear and concern.

The study, led by Christoph Bartneck at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, applied critical analysis to a situation that might seem harmless enough, but may have broader implications on how children perceive emotion.

The researchers often refered to the figures as "agents." According to the paper, more than four billion of them have been sold since they were first introduced in 1975.

"The LEGO company has developed hundreds of designs and can therefore be considered of the most extensive set (sic) of agent faces," writes Bartneck, who studied upwards of 6,000 figures.

Among the many evaluations, the researchers plotted the faces across time "based on their average intensity of their dominant emotion."

Afterward, 264 adult participants rated images of the figures' faces, all shown at random.

Bartneck suggests LEGO often puts its people in a state of conflict – good fighting bad. But even then, the expressions are not black and white. "The good characters suffer in their struggle and the villains can have a smug expression. In any case, the variety of faces has increased considerable (sic)."

The researchers reach the conclusion that, "Designers of agent faces should take great care to design the expressions and to test their effect since toys plan an important role in the development of children."

The study also reveals other interesting tidbits. The Indian figures in the Wild West theme, for example, were the first to be given noses. How's that for a Jeopardy question?

The Smithsonian points out on its blog, however, that the study failed to take the findings one step further. "Their research, though, didn't attempt to investigate any links between angry LEGOs and angry kids."

Still, the study offers a profound takeaway message: "The children that grow up with LEGO today will remember not only smileys, but also anger and fear in the Minifigures' faces."

Maybe this will better prepare kids for real life.

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