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BU Research: A Riddle Reveals Depth of Gender Bias

What’s your answer to this question?

25

Here’s an old riddle. If you haven’t heard it, give yourself time to answer before reading past this paragraph: a father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” Explain. (Cue the final Jeopardy! music.)

If you guessed that the surgeon is the boy’s gay, second father, you get a point for enlightenment, at least outside the Bible Belt. But did you also guess the surgeon could be the boy’s mother? If not, you’re part of a surprising majority.

In research conducted by Mikaela Wapman (CAS’14) and Deborah Belle, a College of Arts & Sciences psychology professor, even young people and self-described feminists tended to overlook the possibility that the surgeon in the riddle was a she. The researchers ran the riddle by two groups: 197 BU psychology students and 103 children, ages 7 to 17, from Brookline summer camps. (They did the latter study through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP).)

In both groups, only a small minority of subjects—15 percent of the children and 14 percent of the BU students—came up with the mom’s-the-surgeon answer. Curiously, life experiences that might suggest the mom answer “had no association with how one performed on the riddle,” Wapman says. For example, the BU student cohort, where women outnumbered men two-to-one, typically had mothers who were employed or were doctors—“and yet they had so much difficulty with this riddle,” says Belle. Self-described feminists did better, she says, but even so, 78 percent did not say the surgeon was the mother. (The results were no different for an alternate version of the riddle: a mother is killed, her daughter sent to the hospital, and a nurse declines to attend to the patient because “that girl is my daughter”; few people guessed that the nurse might be the child’s father.)

The genesis of the research was Belle’s 10-year-old granddaughter, who was given the riddle by her mom. “She thought for a moment,” Belle says, “and she said, ‘How could this be? Well, he could have two fathers.’” The child couldn’t muster any other explanation. Nor could several of her friends. “This piqued our interest,” Belle says. When she and Wapman posed the riddle to kids in the UROP study, some of the answers stretched the bounds of inventiveness: the surgeon was a robot, or a ghost, or “the dad laid down and officials thought he was dead, but he was alive.”

The results are all the more surprising considering that college students and participants in tony Brookline’s summer programs likely hail from higher income and educational backgrounds than the general population. “These are two populations that we would expect, if anything, would be in the avant-garde,” Belle says. Yet, for example, BU students theorized the “father” in the car referred to a priest, or the surgeon was “horribly confused,” or, à la the old Dallas TV show, the whole scenario was a dream.

What made imagining a surgeon mom so difficult? Gender schemas—generalizations that help us explain our complex world and “don’t reflect personal values or life experience,” says Wapman. (So having a surgeon mother doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll propose that as the riddle’s solution.) “Schemas are very, very powerful,” Belle says, adding that the studies’ results and the endurance of gender stereotypes would not surprise Virginia Valian, a Hunter College psychologist who has noted how people presented with the same CV for a man and a woman typically assume the man is more competent.

Valian “argues that schemas are formed very early in life,” says Belle, “and that when it comes to gender, we fixate on women’s reproductive functioning, and we sort of allot competence to men. Experience can have some effect in our schemas, but much less than we might anticipate.” Valian has also noted that schemas are identical in our culture for men and for women—which is exactly what the BU survey found.

That bias against women, Wapman believes, shows the significance of schemas, “this silly riddle” notwithstanding. Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state, cited the BU duo’s work in a New York Times column on the problems facing mothers in the workplace.

The solution? “Having people understand that they hold this bias,” says Wapman, “and when you look at job applicants, keep that in mind.”

“Eternal vigilance, I think, is the only solution,” says Belle. “These schemas do change over time”—she points to other countries with greater gender equity—“but the pace is glacial.”

25 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

25 Comments on BU Research: A Riddle Reveals Depth of Gender Bias

  • really? on 01.16.2014 at 7:44 am

    “The genesis of the research was Belle’s 10-year-old granddaughter”

    Honestly, anybody over 10 years old who couldn’t guess the answer to that “riddle” would have to be very, very stupid. It would be embarrassing to not be able to guess that the surgeon is the mother.

  • J on 01.16.2014 at 7:58 am

    I wonder if they do the following control. Ask a subgroup of people the following question and see if they are more likely to solve the riddle: “A mother and daughter are in a horrible car crash that kills the mother. The daughter is rushed to the hospital; just as she’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that girl is my daughter!”.
    The answer in this case is obviously that the surgeon is the father, but I’m just wondering if the drastic lack of correct answers that people have given to the question is solely because of the gender roles they have in mind, or if the way the question is set up also primes people to think of the surgeon as having the same sex as the other individuals in the question.

    • Steven Bhardwaj on 01.16.2014 at 10:06 am

      “I wonder if they do the following control. Ask a subgroup of people the following question and see if they are more likely to solve the riddle: “A mother and daughter are in a horrible car crash that kills the mother. The daughter is rushed to the hospital; just as she’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that girl is my daughter!”.
      The answer in this case is obviously that the surgeon is the father, but I’m just wondering if the drastic lack of correct answers that people have given to the question is solely because of the gender roles they have in mind, or if the way the question is set up also primes people to think of the surgeon as having the same sex as the other individuals in the question.”

      Agreed 100%. I can’t imagine the students ran the experimental design by a grad student TA, because we would definitely have pointed this out, like a knee-jerk reaction.

    • Dan Cusher on 01.16.2014 at 12:49 pm

      Exactly. There is no control group condition in this study, one where the answer conforms to the gender schemas; they simply have two conditions where the answer conflicts. It might be the case that using words of only one gender (“father,” “son,” “he,” “boy”) is priming the participants to think in those terms. Ideally, they should have groups where they pair “father and son” with “nurse,” and “mother and daughter” with “surgeon” so that the gender schemas are not violated…and then groups where they use “father and daugher” or “mother and son” being in the accident, to avoid priming participants one way or the other.

      My guess is that the effect of gender bias is true and will remain after the control groups are analysed, but it might be much less pronounced – or even absent in the feminist group! It’s just unscientific to jump to that conclusion without using control groups.

    • Thank You Kitty on 02.11.2014 at 8:24 am

      Exactly. As many commenters have pointed out, this “study” is so poorly designed that it could be used as a model of how not to do social “science.” The riddle seems to indicate the effects of linguistic priming or misdirection, if it indicates anything at all. As for the preoccupation with unconscious motives, unknown blind spots and biases that seems to dominate large swathes of social science these days–it would be refreshing to see someone admit that the conscious mind is also a powerful behavioral motivator. Roughly speaking, females in med. school have been at 50% for ten years or more. Isn’t this a more realistic indicator of the status of women in medicine than this (very old, by the way) riddle?

    • Liz on 09.19.2014 at 1:07 pm

      I’ve done a very similar informal experiment with my colleagues (we are all chemists – a very male-dominated field). One out of every ten graduate students and professors that I asked were able to answer the original riddle correctly – most people say some variation of “second father”. I asked the mother-daughter question to a unique set of individuals from my department, and 100% of them got it right.

      I also thought up the male nurse version (so I’m happy to see it was proposed here, too) and am going to try that out next.

  • Casey on 01.16.2014 at 8:05 am

    This is a clever article, and I agree completely with the sentiment. We live in a very gender biased culture. Yet, something at the back of my mind says a lack of creativity, not gender bias is the main issue here. We are not taught to be problem solvers, concrete answers, supposedly “correct” answers are our specialty. What you are seeing in this experiment is not only a narrow view of the sexes but a lack of critical thinking skills.

  • G. B. on 01.16.2014 at 8:14 am

    The validity of the conclusion reached here is questionable. It is telling that the results were no different for the gender reversed alternate version of the riddle. That would suggest that the underlying effect exposed by this riddle is not schema induced gender bias, but rather cognitive limitations imposed by linguistic formulation. The phrasing of a question often predetermines the response due to our language processing facility.
    Is it also possible that a gender bias researcher may be biased toward seeing gender bias?

  • JT on 01.16.2014 at 8:29 am

    Um…you do understand that the language of the riddle itself is designed to steer one’s thoughts toward maleness before asking its pivotal question. That’s the whole point of the riddle. Or any riddle really…to get the listener’s mind *away* from the true answer. It’s kind of scary…and more than a little embarassing I should think…that doctoral-level researchers either didn’t consider the fundamental nature of their research tool or were so biased before even beginning their research that they purposefully chose a method of psychological manipulation to attempt to demonstrate “bias”. Let’s get professional, people. Please.

  • Bruno Santos on 01.16.2014 at 8:32 am

    Actually, this issue is rather simple: in English, words don’t have enough weight on gender, but the human mind relies heavily on words to make any and all sense out of everything.

    Sometime down the road of the English language evolution (or even sooner than that), the decision was made for no words to have gender and for objects to be referred to as “it” and not “he” or “she”.

    In comparison, languages that have derived from Latin, usually have a strong connotation of gender associated to the words, for a more explicit meaning. For example, in Portuguese:
    * Male surgeon: “cirurgião”
    * Female surgeon: “cirurgiã”
    * Male nurse: “enfermeiro”
    * Female nurse: “enfermeira”

    Therefore, the most likely problem isn’t that people use “schemas”, but it’s more likely that the English language itself is missing a critical evolutionary detail for humans to be able to handle it in a “politically correct” way.

    Oh, wait, now I remember: “female-surgeon” is the female form of “surgeon”. That’s the solution established in the English language. Therefore, the riddle itself is actually “malformed” in English.

  • DB on 01.16.2014 at 9:09 am

    “even…self-described feminists tended to overlook the possibility that the surgeon in the riddle was a she”

    Maybe what that really reveals is that this “riddle” isn’t really an accurate test of “gender bias” and is in fact a very childish and simplistic way of approaching a serious issue.

  • someone_you_probably_know on 01.16.2014 at 9:22 am

    Well, its an interesting question. I have to admit that I did not reach the conclusion that the researchers were looking for. I simply thought that the father and son were not related. That is to say, the son’s father was not in the car. The riddle made no stipulation that they were related.

    As to the conclusions, is it really any surprise that the researchers got the results they did? Western society has identified the male/female centered family relationship as the norm. Our outlooks may be changing. Alternatives to the male/female family model are making in-roads. Perhaps, when a person is confronted with something confusing, they fall back on … not sure what term to use here… “older knowledge” maybe?

    The thing is, if asked a direct question, the respondents may have given a more “enlightened answer.” Moreover, if presented with a choice of actions, I suspect many would have made an “enlightened choice.” Measuring gender bias is like measuring the water depth at Niagra Falls’ drop off. Sure, now I know how deep it is, but I am not going to go over the falls.

    Judge folks by their actions, not their unguarded thoughts.

  • Alex on 01.16.2014 at 10:14 am

    I was thinking the crash “emotionally” killed the father… Like a true psychology major.

  • Kate Holbrook on 01.16.2014 at 11:02 am

    Why take an unnecessary dig at the Bible Belt in an otherwise useful column, a column about bias, no less?

    • James Miller (student) on 01.16.2014 at 11:38 am

      Word, Kate. It doesn’t seem very enlightened to me to suggest that where you’re from dictates the level of compassion or intelligence you can have. You can’t control your birthplace, but you can certainly control how you think. Please don’t belittle the South, Rich.

    • kitty on 01.16.2014 at 3:02 pm

      This was the first thing I took from this article. How stupid and trivial to indulge in characterizations like this. Imagine if the remark were “you get a point for enlightenment, at least outside of Roxbury”! Outrage would flare and the author would be censured, if not lose his job. Come on!

  • Just another BU parent on 01.16.2014 at 11:47 am

    An old riddle: “Two siblings are born naturally on the same date, in the same year, to the same mother and father. However, they are not twins- neither fraternal nor identical. Is this possible or impossible?”
    Question: What does this riddle illustrate about the one mentioned in the article?
    Aside: The answer to my old riddle is yes, absolutely!

  • Brian P. on 01.16.2014 at 12:31 pm

    It took a few seconds, but I got the riddle “right.” Was quite saddened to read the dig at the Bible Belt. Perhaps my gender bias was slow thinking. Yet, I found myself thinking faster in the recognition of the opaque geographic and religious bias within the piece. Thus, an interesting piece on at least three kinds of bias: gender, geographic, and religious.

  • Kyle on 01.16.2014 at 4:37 pm

    Again, as other’s have stated, you would need to analyze a control group, or at least a case-control and see if there is a correlation with the mother daughter incident at seeing if the father being a surgeon is concluded. I personally didn’t have any difficulty with the riddle. However, there is a stronger association neurologically with word-pair connections as father-son and mother-daughter activates and excites two different connection pathways, so the time it may take for someone to reach for a word from the opposite gender may be a while, or not at all.

  • Steve on 01.31.2014 at 12:23 am

    Good luck getting this into any respectable journal, because the conclusions do not follow logically on the outcomes. The parenthetical remark about the results reversing when the genders are changed proves, without doubt, that it is the wording of the riddle and not gender bias that influences the results. I assume the parenthetical was added later because many commenters asked whether there was a control group.

    The only bias I see here is in the “researchers” who published this drivel.

    And yeah the bible belt remark is embarrassing.

  • Halley on 12.02.2014 at 9:12 am

    I agree that this study would need a control group, or at the very least change the wording to “a girl and her father” or a “boy and his mother” to avoid priming the group.
    Despite this I, a self-proclaimed feminist, *immediately* thought the surgeon was another father before I self-corrected and decided it was more likely that the surgeon was his mother. Just based on statistics.

    What I think is the more valuable information gained from this study is that the majority of respondents were more likely to accept that the parents were a same sex couple than break gender norms. Does gender bias trump sexual orientation bias? It would be interesting for them to add a control group or correct the language and redo the study so we could have a more accurate picture of what is happening here.

  • Sheli Ayers on 01.06.2015 at 4:01 pm

    Yes, a control group would be a good idea; however, the study is easily replicated.

    Harvard’s long-running Implicit Association Project has a test based on gender bias and careers. Those findings support Belle’s.

  • Tim Chambers 1E4AF729D5CEFFD0 on 03.09.2015 at 12:04 pm

    “If you guessed that the surgeon is the boy’s gay, second father, you get a point for enlightenment, at least outside the Bible Belt.” How condescending! Thus my own bias against the “enlightened elite” gets reinforced. Oh, what a bigoted intolerant bunch we all are. Who will save us from ourselves?

  • Tim Chambers 1E4AF729D5CEFFD0 on 03.09.2015 at 12:28 pm

    Furthermore, there is a cop-out solution that betrays your insistence on pointing out gender bias to the detriment of adoption. The boy could have been adopted by the father in the accident, and surgeon could be the biological father in an open adoption. But, then, that doesn’t fit your narrative, does it?

    Having said my peace in resistance of toxic Political Correctness, I’m happy to stand with women in honor of yesterday’s International Women’s Day.

  • Will on 04.03.2015 at 7:36 pm

    The only states where same-sex marriage is illegal as of 2014 are Georgia and North Dakota, at that they might be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. So check your facts before generalizing a whole third of the country you bigot.

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