“Research” and the Lammily doll  

I am digging this new Lammily doll. Created not by Mattel but by an individual named Nickolay Lamm, the doll has the dimensions of an “average” 19-year-old and comes with “cellulite, acne, and scar stickers.” A now-famous video shows 2nd graders (mostly girls, though there’s also a boy in there) in Pittsburg responding to the doll in comparison to the traditional Barbie doll. The kids seem to really like the doll, saying that she seemed “unique” and “real,” more like a “regular girl,” and they talked about how they could see her doing gymnastics or working as a teacher.

It’s thrilling, for sure, to see that kids can perceive the differences between the Barbie and the Lammily doll, that they seem to like her (most of the children were shown to choose her over the Barbie). Yet a comment from a friend of mine on Facebook (“anything to make a buck…”) reminds me that there’s certainly another reason why the creator would have wanted to design a doll like this: she’s new and different. And that means that there’s a potential market out there. In fact, when asked which of the two dolls they would want to get as a present, every child said “the Lammily doll” – but more than one gave the reason that she already had Barbie and so the Lammily would be a new addition.

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Not the new Lammily doll.

In fact, if you look at the video critically, there may be different reasons why the kids featured prefer the Lammily doll in the first place. Some make sense in a very healthy way; one of the girls says the doll looks a lot like her sister, and another comments on the fact that her toes are separated rather than together (so she seems more human). I looked for psychological phenomena that might account for this and first encountered counter-evidence to my point: the mere-exposure effect, also known as the familiarity principle, which simply states that we tend to prefer things that we are familiar with. Okay, so that would mean that Barbie should have won out there.

Maybe that’s less the point than the fact that Nickolay Lamm himself made the video, which has gone viral, and perhaps he also made the choices about how this “research” was conducted (what questions the adults showing the children the dolls asked, and how the dolls were presented, for example). Even the order of questions – e.g., asking the child what activities they saw the Lammily doll doing first, and then asking what the Barbie would do – can create a certain set of responses that may indicate a preference for the Lammily doll that the child didn’t actually have. This activation of researchers’ assumptions is called confirmation bias and can be problematic in experiments in which researchers don’t fully examine their own preferences (or worse, are covert about their goals to find one product superior to another) before designing the project.

But back to the point my friend was making. The video was made by the doll’s creator, with a clear purpose in mind: to market the doll. Getting kids to say they prefer one toy over another may not be as complicated as we think, which unfortunately defeats what we feminists hope would be a much more revolutionary response to the preeminence of unreal images of women in the form of hourglass-shaped dolls in the hands of little girls. But it certainly fooled me for a while.

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