Archive - 2013
Volume 25 - Part 8 - (August 2012)
When psychologists become builders
Jon Sutton investigates where Lego and psychology intersect
I have managed to use Lego in a professional capacity – mostly in assessment exercises, but also as the basis for a spatial reasoning test. These isolated moments represent the high points of my practice. Everything else is dull and monochrome by comparison.
Alan Redman (Current Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology)
One purchase last Christmas was a book titled The Cult of LEGO (Baichtal & Meno, 2011), and in this I read about Lego-based social development therapy at New Jersey’s Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health. Personal and professional interest came together, and the foundations were laid for this article.
The cement, though, was the feedback from other psychologists when I started sharing the intersect of psychology and Lego on Twitter. Uta Frith (University College London) encouraged me to write an article, saying ‘the idea of a Lego cult is in no way exaggerated’. She even penned her own contribution, a ‘fan letter to Lego’ (see ‘Dear Lego…’). As Roger Highfield (author and executive at the National Museum of Science and Industry) has said, ‘a surprising number of people care about the aesthetic appeal of these little colourful blocks’.
What makes Lego different?
Others see Lego as a strong tool for mental self-development. Writer Curtis Silver says that working with Lego taught us two things about directions: ‘First, it taught us to follow them. The bag being dumped out onto the ground – that was chaos. The instructions guiding you through putting the pieces together – that was order. Second, it taught us to discard the directions, add the new bag to the current pieces and make whatever the hell you wanted. This drove our minds crazy with sick organisational delight as children – the possibilities of what we could build!’
Psychologist Charles Fernyhough (University of Durham) reinforces this point. ‘What strikes me as particularly interesting about Lego is that it is non-representational material that can be made to be representational – although of course that has changed in recent years with more and more pieces being specifically representational, depicting specific characters, tools, features.’ Others have bemoaned this trend. Evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi investigated biological networks and human-built ones, and found that unlike a biological network such as a brain, Lego required a rapidly increasing number of special piece types in order to build complex structures. ‘I suspect that the number of piece types would rise much more slowly than this were we to look at the Lego sets of the 1970s and 80s. My data support what users of old-school Legos intuitively feel: that Lego is no longer the free-formed “clay” it once was, and more like a model set with pre-formed uses – hello, Geonosian Starfighter! – and also pre-formed limits.’
However, to some the mix of basic bricks and more complex pieces and figures in Lego is a valuable feature. David Whitebread says: ‘When you watch children playing with Lego they are often problem-solving with the constructional aspects and involving themselves in
Encouraging this combination of rule-based and imaginative, themed play has made Lego attractive for use in psychological practice.
Lego and autism
Gina Owens, now Gina Gomez and a Research Psychologist at the University of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Foundation Trust, picks up the story. ‘The groups were a success – the children enjoyed it, benefited in terms of their social skills – though there were lots of individual differences – and parents were very satisfied that children could attend a social group that they didn’t find anxiety provoking or stressful.’ But were the benefits specific to Lego?
Lego therapy is now worldwide, with organisations such as ASD Aid (http://asdaid.org), run by adult fans of Lego, organising events in Australia at which thousands attend to learn how ‘to help children with autism spectrum disorders communicate and grow’. Not everyone is convinced though. Jean Ruttenberg, of the Autism Center in Philadelphia, says Lego therapy won’t help children with more complex cases of autism. She says that LeGoff won’t include children with behaviour problems. ‘Those make up the majority of children with autism, and the ones we struggle with every day,’ Ruttenberg says. She would like to see more extensive studies before adding it to treatments at her centre.
Lego in the workplace
On its website, Lego Serious Play is described as ‘building landscape models with LEGO bricks, giving them meaning through storymaking, and playing-out various possible scenarios, which deepens understanding, sharpens insight, and socially “bonds” together the group who “plays” together’. In his introductory manual, Rasmussen draws on the ideas of Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert, Mike Csikszentmihalyi and more in explaining the science behind Serious Play. ‘A business or company is so much more than a building and the people in it’, Rasmussen writes. ‘The LEGO Serious Play method is a bold attempt to take the power of constructionism and apply it to the complexity of the business world… people see things they couldn’t see before. They can manipulate it, play with it, and ask all sorts of “what if” questions by physically manipulating their business model.’
Lego in research
Also getting under the skin with Serious Play is David Gauntlett (University of Westminster). ‘Making things and then reflecting on them and telling a story about them is a great way of getting people to assemble their knowledge, thoughts and feelings about something,’ Gauntlett says. ‘I’m looking at how we can use the process to explore identities. So people are asked to build a model which represents their personal identity – who they are and what they bring to the world. Then we also build influences on their identities, and explore those connections.’ Find out more at www.artlab.org.uk/lego.htm.
Again, I ask whether there is anything intrinsic about Lego in this. ‘Lego is very easy for people to put together,’ Gauntlett says, ‘and to create something which they are typically satisfied with, and which communicates numerous meanings. This is unlike drawing, or making things with modelling clay – both of which I have also asked people to do – because these activities often make people feel self-conscious, and they become overly concerned with what the thing looks like, and spend time trying to make it look acceptable, and becoming frustrated, and so on. With Lego, people can put materials together quite quickly to communicate meanings, in metaphors, so it works very well.’
Lego also lends itself to a more incidental role in psychological research, particularly with children. David Whitebread’s lab is running a number of studies related to private speech and self-regulation. ‘While the children are building something, they are constantly talking about what they are making, planning the adventures they are going
But it’s not just for kids. Lego has been used in an adaptation of Piaget’s famous ‘mountains task’ for adults, finding a strong correlation between overall social acumen and the study participants’ accuracy in taking another spatial perspective, but only when the viewpoint was that of a figure, rather than a toy camera or triangle (Shelton et al., 2011). It has revealed the ‘curse of expertise’, in a study which showed that experts at building Lego Star Wars models underestimate the time needed for a novice to do the same thing (Hinds, 1999). A study of the influence of perceived meaning on our willingness to work made use of Lego (Ariely et al., 2008). Lego even found a place in a study which found that ‘fertility cues lead committed men to devalue relationship alternatives’ (Miller & Maner, 2010).
Even the animal world doesn’t escape. Need to uncover risk behaviour in foraging rats? Bring in the Lego (Choi & Kim, 2010). Nicky Clayton’s group always use Lego to study episodic-like memory in scrub jays: ‘I use the Lego bricks to make each ice cube tray visuospatially distinct and thus allow my birds to bury their food in different trays at district times. This allows me to assess how good they are at remembering which caches they have hidden where and when’ (see, for example, Clayton & Dickinson, 1998). And why not have octopuses get to grips with Lego (Kuba et al., 2006), to tackle the phylogenetic origins and function of play?
Perhaps most interesting, though, is research using Lego that could reveal why people value their Lego creations. In a paper ‘The IKEA effect – when labor leads to love’, a team led by psychologist Michael Norton (2011) investigated the counter-intuitive notion that having to put effort into producing something yourself can actually increase your willingness to pay for it. Participants valued their Lego helicopters, ducks, dogs or birds more when they had built them compared to when they received prebuilt sets, or when they built and unbuilt them. The authors suggest that ‘building products increases both thoughts about the positive attributes of that product… and positive affect and emotional attachment to that product’. In addition, the authors argue, self-assembly of products may allow people to both feel competent and display evidence of that competence – their creation – thereby ‘signalling desired attributes’ to themselves and others. Personally, I suspect that displaying my ‘creation’ would only signal to my other half that I was entering midlife crisis, but Norton’s point has solid foundations.
Other toys do find their way into psychology. For example, William Farr and Nicola Yuill of the University of Sussex are doing fascinating work with Steve Hinske at the Institute for Pervasive Computing in Zurich, using an augmented Playmobil Knight’s Castle. They have added a wireless networking system and radio frequency identification tags, allowing the Playmobil characters to speak or make different sounds when they are placed in different locations. The adaptations can improve understanding of and interest in the play set, and boost the level of social interaction and play with other children (Farr et al., 2012). Farr and Yuill even teamed up with Hayes Raffle, the developer of Topobo, a construction system embedded with programmable memory. In a small sample of children with autism, they found more social forms of play with the Topobo than with traditional Lego (Farr et al., 2010).
Yet such examples are few and far between, and the sense that there is ‘something different’ about Lego persists. Perhaps it’s simply that what is largelya personal preference for Lego based on aesthetics, simplicity and versatility became more of a cult amongst scientists (e.g. see tinyurl.com/scitweeps), which has then led to interesting partnerships. As we have seen, there are several examples of psychologists influencing the development of Lego (see also ‘Lego in teaching’). ‘What I find attractive about Lego as a company to work with,’ says David Whitebread, ‘is that they seem genuinely interested in supporting high-level research into play and learning, and have a strong philosophy of developing products based on rigorous research to support children’s play. They provide funding for research through quite an impressive array of projects which they either run themselves or support financially.’
There’s even a ‘senior builder’, Dave Specha, making use of his psychology degree at a Legoland Discovery Centre (see tinyurl.com/79nwprf). There’s hope for me yet!
- Jon Sutton is Managing Editor of The Psychologist.
If you have used Lego or other play systems in your professional life, do get in touch and see @legopsych.
BOX: Lego in teaching
BOX: Dear Lego… yours, Uta Frith
For me you are one of those legends that transcend change in fashion and leaps in technology. Just like your abstract cousin, language, you continuously re-use and reinvent your elements. You have long started to import more and more semantics by offering me little people and little symbols as pre-prepared play elements. At first I was afraid this would destroy the purely abstract qualities of the game, but soon it became irresistible to connect a tiny Darth Vader incongruously with a flower. I also admit to being amused by the idea of ‘Serious Play’. Pinstriped kits for the board room and the executive office? Permission to be creative when no longer a child? I have never needed an excuse for play. After all, according to Einstein, play is the highest form of research. I don’t even need my own special box of elements – as in research it is best to share and to re-use.
With tender thoughts of never-ending combinations, your devoted fan,
Ariely, D., Kamenica, E. & Preleca, D. (2008). Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 67, 671–677.
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