Column |  It’s quite strange to hand your child over to a complete stranger

Column | It’s quite strange to hand your child over to a complete stranger

“Have a nice day,” she said with a warm smile and closed the door. I just left my children in the care of a complete stranger. Whistling, I cycle to the station, drag my folding bike onto the train and park it next to a herd of tourists who block the door with their suitcases. As I flop down, my buttock touches my neighbor’s. I soon get up again and ask him to look after my things so I can pee. At the station I step into the elevator with no idea who. It’s almost 9am and everything is still going well.

In our hectic lives, encounters with strangers are an everyday occurrence. That’s pretty crazy. If we look at our closest relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees, they have little to do with strangers and encounter as many in their entire lives as we do in one day. Colleague Karline Janmaat studies hunters and gatherers and, compared to chimpanzees living in the same piece of Congolese rainforest, these people travel greater distances and trade with other groups. However, the number of interactions with strangers is out of proportion to that of us Weird’os (‘Westernized Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic‘), as I mentioned to you and myself in my previous column.

People naturally organize themselves into groups and subgroups. The result is a layered society that is becoming increasingly complex due to globalization and digitalization. The agreements we make and the unwritten rules we use facilitate interactions with strangers. A nursery teacher must have completed training as a pedagogical employee and must issue a declaration of behavior before she can take care of other people’s children. Approved childcare organizations are registered in the National Childcare Register and only parents who place their child there receive childcare allowance. A crèche is only included in the register if it meets the requirements of the Childcare Act, a document in which the word ‘article’ appears 609 times, not including the times that word appears in the articles themselves. The GGD checks annually.

The digital notebook

Even though I am tens of kilometers away from my children, I am closely involved because of the photos and messages that the new teacher places in the digital notebook. I share experiences with the other parents in our WhatsApp group. In addition to official supervisory bodies, informal initiatives ensure that institutions try to maintain their reputation.

But why is it easier for us to sit down next to person A on the train than next to person B? An important factor is what we see in the face. What facial features give us confidence? To find out, researchers used the technique of ‘reverse correlation’. You show people on the computer the same face a thousand times in grayscale with a changing filter of noise over it, consisting of a random pattern of pixels. Test subjects are shown two faces at the same time and have to indicate which one looks more reliable, the left or the right. The pixel pattern makes the faces change a little every time. If you overlay all the pixel patterns that subjects said looked more reliable, you get a babyface with a round jawline, puppy eyes with large pupils under light eyebrows, a high forehead, and the corners of the mouth that curl slightly upwards. If you overlay the pixel patterns of the unselected photos, you get a grumpy blockhead, the “unreliable person” stereotype.

Person with a baby face

Psychologists then investigated whether subjects trust a person with a baby face more easily. That indeed appears to be the case. They only need to see a face for 33 milliseconds to classify it as ‘trustworthy’ or ‘untrustworthy’.

But the story is not finished yet. While we are more likely to give up our child to a woman with a childish face and friendly expression, we have more trust in politicians with facial features that radiate dominance and competence: a square head, not too great a distance between the eyes and high cheekbones. And preferably a little attractive. Research has shown that these facial characteristics play a major role in election results. Looking at the photos of the fourteen party leaders for the European elections NRC last week, I’m betting on Tom Berendsen of the CDA. But it will depend, because the competition consists of eleven other white men in suits.

The discrimination figures published last week show that our primate brain is having a hard time in our modern society. The associations, biases and stereotypical images that we all consciously or unconsciously have make us less likely to trust a female politician or male daycare leader. These unwanted remnants of our evolution are fed by what we see around us every day and are therefore familiar with. That is precisely why contrasting role models are so important to keep us awake.

Mariska Kret is professor of cognitive psychology at Leiden University.