• Rich Barlow

    Senior Writer

    Rich Barlow

    Rich Barlow is a senior writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. Perhaps the only native of Trenton, N.J., who will volunteer his birthplace without police interrogation, he graduated from Dartmouth College, spent 20 years as a small-town newspaper reporter, and is a former Boston Globe religion columnist, book reviewer, and occasional op-ed contributor. Profile

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There are 91 comments on BU Research: A Riddle Reveals Depth of Gender Bias

  1. “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.

    1. You should read Lateral Thinking by DeBono.

      And you should feel bad for saying the 10 year old is stupid. if you were smarter, you wouldn’t call others stupid.

      It’s all about assumptions and our ability to think vertically once those assumptions are made.

      1. Ali on 01.15.2018 at 2:04 am said
        “The riddle is packed full of male pronouns. If it was neutral by using words like parent and child or they then people would be more inclined to choose mother or father”

        Ali, that’s quite an astute observation there. I didn’t pick that up either (I didn’t answer the riddle correctly).
        Also HAHA! @ the people who guessed it was a gay couple rather than it was the mother!

        P.S: to show how gender biased again…from your listed name, I also pictured you as a male first then only remembered the name could be either

        1. That was my thought too, about the male pronouns. It’s like when you touch you chin and tell someone something is on their cheek, yet they touch their chin because you are touching your chin. I think the study should be done not using male pronouns & see if they get a better correct response. Also needs to be done numerous times.

    2. The riddle is packed full of male pronouns. If it was neutral by using words like parent and child or they then people would be more inclined to choose mother or father but instead the riddle conditions people to subconsciously think of males that you are doomed to be biased from the begining.

  2. 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.

    1. “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.

      1. The following question was also set up, but with the occupation being nurse not surgeon. Again the gender bias was the same: “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.” Thus, many people failed to identify the nurse as male like they failed to identify the surgeon as female.

        1. But the core issue remains unchanged. In both tales it’s people of the same gender in the car, priming your brain to think of that gender when answering the question.
          Make it a father dying and a daughter on the operating table and I’d be the number of those who say the surgeon is a woman magically improves.

    2. 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.

    3. 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?

    4. 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.

    5. The researchers addressed this; it’s covered in the fourth paragraph:

      “(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.)”

    6. Notice that you just called the probably-male doctor scenario the ‘control.’ That proves the bias right there! The whole point of the riddle is that the gender of the doctor is ambiguous – *neither* gender would be a ‘control’ in this study! Gender is the variable you’re testing in the first place. A control scenario would be one in which the gender is not ambiguous. “I took him to the doctor. He said he couldn’t operate. What gender is the doctor?” Virtually everyone would get this right, of course. Which is why it’s the control. In an unambiguous gender scenario, people pick the right gender 100% of the time. In an *ambiguous* gender scenario (‘the officer pulled me over’), you might have some likely hypotheses – that their choice might match the population distribution (roughly 50/50), or that their choice might match the gender distribution of the profession (though people might not know this). If their picks matched either of those, you could argue there wasn’t a gender bias. If their picks skewed to one gender more than that, that’d be evidence of bias.
      If anything, the wording of the riddle (by already establishing who one parent is) should skew the ambiguous choice toward being female, as the most stereotypical parent pairing is male/female. (I’d test this too to know more exact numbers). So to me the fact that rationalizing two dads as a likelier explanation than a female doctor is incredibly telling, and suggests that gender bias is really extreme.
      And back to my original point, the scenario of the riddle is gender-ambiguous. Assuming that ‘male’ is the default ‘control’ answer in an ambiguous situation is *exactly* the bias that’s being pointed out!

      1. I got the answer ‘surgeon was mum’ first time I heard this riddle years ago, I agree with the comment that it is about lack of critical thinking skills more than gender bias. I have aspergers, I find it helps a lot with riddles, I ALWAYS think outside the box, unintentionally. My problem is more trying to think inside the box, (or locate the drafted box, or figure out why everyone else is thinking inside the box in the first place)

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. If you consider that the need of a group of words like “female-surgeon” is excludent and therefore sexist by itself,you would understand the whole picture better.

      Let’s see the issue in Portuguese. Have you seen it? Instead of “surgeon”, it’s used “a pessoa mais competente no local” or something – and even like that people get it wrong.

      And… yeah, schemas do exist, they sometimes change, and they interfere in our thoughts and actions – let’s all study psychology ;)

      1. The same issue arises in the Spanish version, which is that a son and his father get into a car accident and are taken to the nearest clinic. They have severe trauma and a SPECIALIST (general neutral word) is called. The specialist arrives, looks at the son and says, “I cannot treat him as he is my son.”

        In the Spanish version, as well, people assume el especialista (which could be male or female) is male and don’t consider that it could be the mother.

  7. “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.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. “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?

  16. 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.

      1. You’re making a biased assumption there assuming that biological parents are never involved in their children’s lives whatsoever after adoption. This father could have seen his child (or even just pictures of him)on a regular enough basis to recognize him when he saw him. Perhaps the boy was only given up for adoption because his father (and presumably mother) were not in a position where they could provide for and raise a child but they did still want to have some involvement in the child’s life as a stipulation of the open adoption.

  17. 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.

  18. This riddle is being analyzed based on gender bias, projecting that people who answer do so on gender discrimination. It’s a loaded riddle in an attempt to misjudge and stereotype the answers people give.

  19. I just asked this riddle to a few friends. Few of them gave “mom” as their first answer. However, some of them added something along the line of “well, or maybe the surgeon is the mom…but then this wouldn’t be a riddle”. And when I told them yes, the answer is “mom”, they all thought that I was teasing them. Why would I ask them to solve a “riddle” with such a trivial answer ?!

    Could this be what those BU students had in mind as well? When you are asked a question by a stranger, of course the answer should not be trivial and requires some creativity or imagination!

  20. I have been playing people with this riddle for about 30 years, since discovering it in Scientific American.

    It’s efficacy depends entirely upon how it is presented. Firstly, it is good to make it a long drawn out tale with lots of extraneous detail to confound the recipient. Then, as others have pointed out, the sex of other characters may create a cognitive gender set. So I put in a good many superfluous male characters and even incidental “masculine” elements such as the type of car involved in the initial accident (a Humvee for example, rolling off a cliff on an outward bound expedition are nice macho touches). As such, this may confound interpretation in terms of gender bias but the riddle nonetheless powerfully illustrates the unconscious operation of either cognitive set, gender stereotypes or other perceptual biases. For me this is more important and basic than whether it is based in gender bias or these other considerations, which most people have poor awareness of and responses to the riddle illustrate. That said, I doubt that a reverse role version would result in anyone having trouble identifying a male surgeon as the father.

    Most importantly, you must NEVER reveal the solution until the recipient has either shown they can answer it themselves or have tried with a number of explicit attempts. Some of these can be very “creative”. I have heard such theories as “The father was resuscitated”, “It wasnt his real father”, “Its a clone of the father” and even “The surgeon is God”. These things come out of otherwise very intelligent people.

    I even ran it past a young woman who was a junior doctor and training to be a trauma surgeon herself! She went through the gamut of daft hypothesese and then when told the answer protested that “BUT, as a matter of fact there are no woman trauma surgeons in the UK”. I dont know if that was true at the time(it was 1991 or 2), but it is an attempt at rationalisation that is echoed by many of the comments seen above made by people who read the answer presented in the article so promptly, without having in honesty been challenged to produce it themselves.

    I would say, regarding this last point about how the riddle should be presented (with the solution witheld) , that most of those who here have dismissed the riddle with such comments as that its so obvious only a stupid person would not see the solution, would not have seen it themselves had it been presented properly. I learned myself that if you give the solution too quickly, even if they could not see it, they will tend to rationalise with comments such as “Oh thats obvious, I didn’t say the mother because I thought it must be more complicated.” Therefore, it’s necessary to withold the solution and force them to dig themselves into a hole by voicing various wrong answers before giving it, so as to guard against this.

    Sadly, therefore, I am afraid that the author of the article has effectively botched his chance to make an effective point by a) not acknowledging the other variables than gender, b)not presenting the riddle in an effective way and above all c) not witholding the solution until at least the end of the piece (if not altogether).

    A sad waste.

    BTW, the cognitive processes are relevant to my work, as I am a stage hypnotist, MBPsS with a BSc in Psychology.

  21. My initial thought was: what is going through the surgeon’s mind? Why couldn’t the surgeon perform the surgery on, what I was thinking, HIS OR HER son? I thought it was about the surgeon’s mental state at the time, that is, maybe HE OR SHE had ethical objections or was so distraught that she couldn’t do her job effectively because of her vested personal and emotional interest in the outcome. Like a judge, I thought HE OR SHE recused him/herself on this basis.

    Guess I was wrong.

    1. I thought along the same lines. I was wondering why the doctor, no matter who they were, COULDN’T operate on the dying boy. Quite a sad excuse for a doctor. By the time the next available doc gets off the golf course,drives to the hospital,and cleans up for surgery, the boy is dead. Then you have both a horrible mother AND doctor, who’ll obviously deny accountability in the end anyway.

  22. For the riddle about father, son and surgeon, I thought of an another answer. Riddle starts like,”A father and son”. The first thing that came into my mind is whose father? And whose son? If you think like, surgeon’s father and surgeon’s son then I think answer is different. Think about this in an another way like, A surgeon’s 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!”

  23. This riddle, if it is intended to display sexist bias, is severely flawed.

    A persons answer doesnt necissarily imply that they are sexist at all. It may show sexist bias in some instances but in general cannot.

    It needs to be reworded to a “parent and their child”.

    Just because someone imagined a man as the doctor doesnt mean they believe that men are the only competent gender for medecine.

    You google the word “firefighter” and you get a flurry of men in firefighting uniforms. Is google sexist?

    This riddle has a better chance showing how the media and entertainment masculinize or feminize certain things than it does determining if someone is sexist.

  24. While obviously bias clearly influences people’s responses I wonder how much the language primes people? All the language is male dominated – I wonder if it was a daughter instead of a son if that would change anyone’s answers?

  25. What they are not saying is that this,study was done back in the 1960’s. I remember the character “Gloria” talked about it on an episode of All in the Family…way back in the day. That may explain the result.

  26. I live in the Bible belt, answered the question correctly, and (surprise!) would be fine with the answer being two dad’s. You are pointing out one bias while reinforcing another. Maybe yiu should consider your own ignornace.

  27. So…people are wired to look at the world through stereotypes and assumptions? Imagine that. At their core they are survival reflexes. It’s why camouflage works. It’s where the ‘if you want to hide something, put it out in the open’ truism comes from.

    The punchline here is the thought that ‘enlightenment’ can eliminate the predisposition. All it does is move the ball…into what someone else considers to be enlightened.

  28. This is an eye opener article. It really forces us to think again and again before taking any decision based on our perception about gender which we have build unconsciously over the period.

  29. I really did not know what to think except it was the boy’s mother. At one point I thought could it could have been the birthmother and that this child had been given up for adoption and now life is flashing before her eyes at this point.

  30. I thought it could be the boy’s birth parent, thinking that with the accident and the death of the mother that he could have been adopted and now the parent discovered this was her child, perhaps she knew the adopted parent all the time. This is my comment on this.

  31. To be fair, in the Spanish language there are clear masculine/feminine appropriations to nouns, like “surgeons”. For example, “cirujano” literally means [male] surgeon, and “cirujana” means [female] surgeon. My point being is, the English language, doesn’t necessarily do this. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation and assumption. So, to call people out as prejudice is kind of unfair. Next time, if you write this riddle in Spanish, I bet you that most would not have this issue. :D

  32. Truly immediately I had my mind on a man as the surgeon. This actually revealed that we all have this bias mind set when it comes some professions. Learning therefore, is that one should not be too quick in arriving at a conclusion in cases like this.

  33. -IIRC, when I used to watch ALL IN THE FAMILY reruns as a teenager (!) I easily figured out
    the answer to this riddle- the surgeon was the boy’s mother! HOWEVER, that was in the mid-nineties, long after the idea of a woman being a surgeon had become ingrained in society.

  34. Here’s my problem with the riddle: The way it’s asked makes you expect a clever answer. Just like with “Why did the chicken cross the road?” People do know it’s to get to the other side–they just expected the answer to be something really clever.

    What you need to do is ask people to name every answer they can think of, both mundane and outlandish. If they still don’t guess that the doctor was a woman, that’s sexism. But many will name that answer, as well as the doctor being his other gay dad.

    And that’s another issue–some people will say “I don’t know” because they have no way to tell which possible answer is the correct one.

  35. I think everyone has the right to their own opinion and it is interesting how each invidivual views this situation. This is very thought provoking.

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