Playing with Others

I recently received an email that, in another time, would have tested me.  It’s a genre familiar to all of us: several paragraphs registering a complaint, only some of which we have control over, written out of frustration and haste, and expressed in a way that (we think) we would never use in face-to-face communication. Now that I think about it, though, I can quickly list at least a dozen committee meetings with interactions that make this virtual one appear like a love letter.

The Many Faces of LEGO (Flickr/Salvador Maniquiz)

I’m reminded of the study focusing on the 3,655 Lego people made between 1975 and 2010 (Bartneck, Obaid, & Zawieska, 2013). Legos are sold in 130 countries and manufactured by the third largest toy company in the world. Over the years, the facial expressions have become increasingly varied, but with two distinct trends: “the proportion of happy faces decrease and the proportion of angry faces increase” (p. 8). The lead researcher is a robot expert interested in anthropomorphism and human-robot interaction, including facial expressions as they “relate not only to the way people express emotions but also to how they interpret them while expressed by others” (p. 4).  The study comes to a variety of conclusions about the toys and their production patterns, but at the end the researchers reflect, “We cannot help but wonder how the move from only positive faces to an increasing number of negative faces impacts how children play” (p. 8).

This question of the impact of toys on children is another conversation, but here, I’m interested in how the toys might reflect our society, or how adults ‘play.’ Our stress levels have increased in the last 25 years by between 10% and 30% across sex, race/ethnicity, age, education, employment status, and income (Cohen & Janicki-Deverts, 2012). Two weeks ago, I briefly explored the specific issue of stress with faculty and a study on the stress-reducing effects of mindfulness. This week, thanks to that email and the outcome, I’m thinking about how we react to others’ stress.

Much of the mindfulness research addresses its physiological effects, but Condon, Desbordes, Miller, and DeSteno (2013) looked at its interpersonal effects. During an eight-week meditation course, the participants and those on its waiting list (but not in the course) were individually observed in a waiting room with two seated actors.  A third actor using crutches and expressing pain enters the room, but the study participant has just taken the last available seat, and the other actors ignore the new person in crutches.  As expected, the results show the power of the bystander effect (the “don’t get involved” phenomenon of mirroring others’ behavior of ignoring someone in distress) of the other people in the waiting room who neither give up their seat nor acknowledge this person’s pain. Indeed, only 15% of the people in the control group gave up their seats, in contrast to 50% of those in the meditation class.* Whether the cause is reduced distraction, increased awareness of what’s happening around oneself at the moment, or greater compassion, the result is more compassionate behavior.

This study was in my thoughts as I read this work email, and I was grateful:  I immediately felt the writer’s stress and pain, and all I wanted to do was help. I wasn’t worried or angry or defensive, and I didn’t experience any stress. The situation turned out well, and quickly.  This week’s practice takes us a step in the direction of a gentler response to others.


  • For the next week, every time you interact with someone–in the hallway, in class, in a committee meeting, on email, in grading, on the phone–immediately think the following:

“I wish this person happiness.”

That’s it.  Do it for a week.  Let me know how it goes.

I wish you happiness.

* My first reaction to these results was “only 50%!?!?” until a colleague in psychology explained the power of the bystander effect.  50% is actually impressive.

Bartneck, Christoph, Mohammad Obaid, & Karolina Zawieska. (2013). Agents with Faces: What can we learn from LEGO minifigures? Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction, Sapporo.
Cohen, Sheldon, & Janicki-Deverts, Denise. (2012). Who’s Stressed? Distributions of Psychological Stress in the United States in Probability Samples from 1983, 2006, and 2009. Journal of Applied Psychology.
Condon, Paul, Gaëlle Desbordes, Willa B. Miller and David DeSteno. (Aug 2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science. 1-3.
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