BU Research: A Riddle Reveals Depth of Gender Bias
What's your answer to this question?
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.”
“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.
This means you do not understand how severe prejudice is in modern days
I’m a woman surgeon and I didn’t even get it! Fortunately, my daughter answered it correctly so maybe I’m doing something right….
Then are you saying that 86% of Boston University psychology students are “very, very stupid”?
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.
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
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.
I totally agree. Although the riddle is very good and entertaining, it is booby-trapped to unconsciously take the reader through a one way tunnel, and scream “AHAAAA!!! (Got you!)” at the end, to finally justify the revelation of an already existing situation. The problem exists, and it is real. There is no imminent need for the “Sherlock Holmes” theatrics. However, it was fun to read.
So… No one is stupid; and there is no real need to get angry because it somehow makes the reader feel guilty or confused. The riddle is “like” a game, and is also built to show the reader there is a sore spot in society (like an old fracture), and one way to illustrate it is to make the reader it self puts the finger on it, and press hard without warning. Of course it hurts, because it needs fixing; And, It is annoying; But, it is also true.
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.
This is ridiculous! It doesn’t mean we are bias!
“Father, Son, Dad, Boy”…the story is riddled with male descriptions…of course you may jump to conclusions.
Stop making problems out of nothing!
Seems like I am six years late to this board but let me answer that anyway for anyone who has yet to see this page for their first time in life.
I guess I speak for a majority when I say that only a psychopath would assume the woman doctor would still be operating even though her own husband just died moments ago. The ones who did seem to assume a woman doctor would still pull off the rest of her work day…
So this test is rather suitable for a psychological evaluation rather than to gauge biases in gender related matters.
I would not say stupid.
I think that as a species we are collectively ignorant and consistently ignorant when it comes to this as we are learning and shaping our language to accommodate all of us. It is important to be okay wit feeling ignorant to such things, to pick up the pace. Let this ignorance be a lubricant to slide in new ideas to shape the landscape viewed with our differed perspectives.
This article is very interesting.It helped me learn and understand gender schemas.
I am extremely shocked that I did not get it. I tried to convince myself that the words father and he were occupying my brain space. However, the truth is The word doctor in my psyche is associated with man. Even when I am looking for a female doctor. I say that and when I am looking for a male doctor, I say Doctor. I find this fascinating and truly believe the only way to chip at our biases is to expose them.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)”
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!
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)
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.
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?
No, the “reversed” version is actually not reversed, it contains another gender bias (that a nurse is female). See:
>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.
Another commenter did do the reversed version informally, see https://www.bu.edu/articles/2014/bu-research-riddle-reveals-the-depth-of-gender-bias/#comment-7240559, the findings were that the true reversed version:
>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.
So I assume here the question was:
>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!”
Then 100% gets it right out of 10. I assume that also the reversed nurse question, 100% would get this one right:
>A father is killed, his son sent to the hospital, and a nurse declines to attend to the patient because “that boy is my son”.
But agree that this would be good controls.
And indeed to maybe do it even more properly, as mentioned here, https://www.bu.edu/articles/2014/bu-research-riddle-reveals-the-depth-of-gender-bias/#comment-7240542 you need to rephrase to “parent and child”, to remove the priming.
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.
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.
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 ;)
“Excludent” isn’t a real word (except in mathematics)
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.
I was thinking same about Slavic languages and probably more languages has words for men and woman. In these languages you probably unconsciously relate to word describing jobs ending with consonant to a men.
I would like to know if all participants in research were native English speaker and if English was there only language. That would maybe change numbers.
“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.
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.
The first words are “a father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad.”
It clearly states that they’re related… “a FATHER and a SON”
I was thinking the crash “emotionally” killed the father… Like a true psychology major.
Why take an unnecessary dig at the Bible Belt in an otherwise useful column, a column about bias, no less?
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.
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!
Exactly what I thought when I read that sentence. It is like people preaching tolerance, but showing no tolerance for those that believe differently than themselves. What they really mean is that everyone should be tolerant of my views and of those that believe like me.
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!
Your riddle has nothing to do with the riddle in this article. This article is talking about gender bias and stereotypes, yours is just critical thinking. They’re not twins, but triplets I presume? Maybe even quadruplets? I realize I’m 8 years late on answering but it’s the thought that counts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.
Well, how would the biological father know that that was his son? If he adopted him away, he hasn’t seen the kid in years….
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
The operator is a female. see the operator is the sons mother. If you watch the movie tin cup you would already know the answer.
Umm… I answered the surgeon is the father’s ghost…
What does that say about me? (maybe I’m just weird)
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.
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.
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!”
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.
You are spot on. Let me add this. This is an article that I am supposed to read to make me less biased if I happen to be biased. It is hypocritical because it approves of the clear bias by the author. This article inflames the fight and does not help gender bias at all.
If you are aware of the father being gay then you are enlightened. Implies that those inside the Bible Belt are not enlightened and don’t get a point. In an article about bias the author clearly shows his bias. If I am a liberal I would be angry because you just weakened our side by being hypocritical. If I am a conservative you made me angry and did nothing to help me supposedly to be less biased. You just gave me more evidence that you are a hypocrite and you are disqualified from helping me if I decide to have an open mind which you obviously think I need.
……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.
…….man is more competent?
That is bias and an assumption. True the woman is connected with reproduction, but that is logical not biased. This has nothing to do with competence. You just took a cheap shot at men.
…..Boston University moderates comments to facilitate an informed, substantive, civil conversation. Abusive, profane, self-promotional, misleading, incoherent or off-topic comments will be rejected. Moderators are staffed during regular business hours (EST) and can only accept comments written in English.
Its not ok to be abusive, profane, self promotional, misleading, incoherent, but it is ok for the author to show a clear liberal bias in an article on gender bias and bash bible believers? So we trade on bashing for another. This is supposed to help people? Really? This is the kind of thing that happens that just makes it worse and does not fix anyone. It just trades bashing by conservatives for bashing by liberals. That means no one is right or good.
Shame on you BU for trying to pass this off for something academic.
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?
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.
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.
There were times only male worked as surgeon’s or doctors. Therefore,I would need more information to answer the question.
Assumptions are tough to ignore but so frequent in occasion.
Right on point.
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.
All of the responses have different views because they were brought up differently. It’s interesting to review.
I immediately thought the surgeon was the Mom or possibly the gay dad. Most of us make assumptions before discovering the facts.
My answer was that the boy’s step-father took him to the hospital…
I have seen this before and therefore knew the surgeon was the boys mother!
i was thinking it was the step father
I have seen this before but thanks for the reminder of Gender Bias.
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.
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.
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.
This article shows us how many times we see no further, and we get carried away by appearances.
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
It didn’t cross my mind that it could be the child’s mother.
To my opinion it could be a case of adoption.
Sadly, my mind also went straight to “male”..
I thought right away the surgeon was a woman!
Gender bias continues to be true
A lot of people jump to conclusions before realizing!
Gender bias continues even if we become more and more aware about it, because it needs a long time to change own behaviors.
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.
-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.
I thought right away the surgeon was a man
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.
my first though was, The father is gay and one of the parents die in the crash and the other parent was the surgent!
This is something to ponder.
This inspires critical thinking.
Everyone thinks so differently.
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.
For me the fact that the word “Bias” was part of this test, made me put more thought to this riddle( I picked woman)
my first thought was his mother
Could not think of his mother, but the real father to the boy.
The dead so-called father had been cheated by the mother to this boy who had lied to him that this boy is his.
I totally agree. Although the riddle is very good and rather entertaining, it is booby-trapped to unconsciously take the reader through a one way tunnel, and scream “AHAAAA!!! (We got you!)” at the end, to finally justify the revelation of an already existing situation. The problem exists, and it is real. There is no imminent need for the “Sherlock Holmes” theatrics. However, it was fun to read.
So… No one is “stupid”; and there is no real need to get angry because it somehow makes the reader feel “upset”, “guilty or “confused”. The riddle is “like a game”, and is also built to show the reader that there is a sore spot in society (like an old fracture), and one way to illustrate it is to make the reader put its finger on it, and press hard without a warning. Of course it hurts, because the injury is there, and it needs fixing; And, It is annoying; But, it is also true.
It is a complex situation in a complex society; And the answer to this “real life” riddle is not always a straight one, because we are all “equally different” and we all generally respond based upon how we perceive our life and the marks the world around us have left. We are all shaped by the impacts in our lives and by the way we react upon those impacts. Each mind is a universe; So, there is an imperative need to respect one another, and our individual boundaries.
(Again) We are all “equally different”, but with a common factor as a goal: “RESPECT”; Not to demand it from others and bend this world to our individual shape, but to grow as individuals in a well seasoned harmonized society. It is hard to achieve, but not impossible. Lets start with finding Real Value in others; Find those things that make us useful in a productive society; That skill or talent that combined with other individuals’ skills and talents will serve to preserve us in the time of crisis. ●
It had me thinking. How could this be? After a while I realized it was his mother. It is true, the first thing that comes to mind is the surgeon is a male.
I thought that the surgeon was his mother only because of the first scenario about the father and son
I also thought that the surgeon was his mother.
It is still difficult in our society to put forward the women in their work and their success, as great and important as the men.
We are still very far in terms of parity in the minds of people in general
Hopefully when things change for the future.
All the view points were very interesting. The best part of various responses were fruit for thought. I will point out one thing that I have found out through my recent reading is that the authors of the books I am currently reading have the male character in the story wanting to know why a female character would want to venture in a male dominate field when they should be a homemaker. I love the outcome and determination of the female.
This inspires critical thinking. It is very interesting that everyone thinks differently. So me. I also thought of his mother.
Most people subconsciously think that the doctor is the mother of the child
We have more bias than we realize
I immediately was thinking that that was his stepfather.
I knew that surgeon cannot operate on their own family member which is unethical for the surgeon to do
This inspires critical thinking. this will help to think out of box.
Assumptions are tough to ignore but so frequent in occasion. The first reaction is often not a female doctor
I thought it is his mother
I’ve noticed this behavior.
Interesting and difficult to fight the prejudices
We have bias instinctually and it’s a reality. Bias is essential to our survival and unfortunately our DNA and our bias is formed without asking our opinion. We are a species that has deep roots in survival because of bias and it will ebb and flow throughout time. Hate that it is unfair at times.
I have a hard time with the way this was presented. I don’t look at people and say there is 2 men walking or 2 women walking and you assume that they are gay? I don’t. I have gay friends and have been to there wedding. You don’t assume anything because it will cause trouble down the road. I have good long time friends who are black but I don’t look at them like that. We were created equal and that is what I believe.
This changes the thinking pattern.
May be if there was a story line. For example, the boy and his parents are at home, as they leave the Father says to the Mother ” Have a wonderful day at work”. Then the Mother replies ” Thank you honey I have a long day at the hospital seeing patients”. It would not be a riddle if it did not make think and take educated assumption, good riddle.
Very interesting cases !
This riddle has nothing to do with bias and everything to do with framing a desired outcome to prove a point. The evidence is seen in that biases are acquired as part of our journey in life. Because children and adults both “scored” the same, there is no “acquired” bias. In other words, one would expect bias to grow or become more rooted over time but this was not the case.
The riddle is framed with language to indicate its a male
nice case. provoking mind
In Nigeria and in most African countries where extended family system is the norm the fact that the doctor calls the boy “their son” is not strange because the doctor may be a member of the boy’s extended family. The doctor may be the boy’s uncle from the paternal or maternal side.
I agree Lilian! It is also common to refer to someone as my son or daughter in the African American community in the United States southern region. We have kept a lot of the traditions that we had before we were brought to the United States. We call elders outside of our immediate family aunts and uncles as well.
Since I was brought up by a single father, I totally forgot about the mother. That is why and how your personal experience influences your environmental schema. Your reaction to situations is built upon what you know to be true. Research has proven this.
Very interesting cases !
Because my wife had a high-level corporate position, my thought went immediately to “boy’s mother” but the riddle gives you pause for thought in all of our underlying biases.
At least television is getting it, finally. Chicago Med and The Good Doctor both have female surgeons and male nurses. And when television gets a change in society and shows it, I think this change is more easily accepted in American society, anyway.
All you need to do is watch the newest medical TV shows to know that things are changing. New television shows are showing us the way things will be.
I don’t think gender bias is the complete solution on why we didn’t think the surgeon is the mother.
They go to the hospital and they wait for the surgeon for an hour. One would (unconsciously) assume that if the mother was a surgeon, they would have called her in the first place rather than waiting for her to appear and state she can’t operate because that’s her son.
I definitely got confused with the spin! It made me realized I am Bias!
I had no problem thinking the surgeon was his mother, but equally thought it could have been a second father. but honestly I also presumed the people inn the story were white. I’m not sure if the story was about Black people that would have change the number of people thinking she was his mother? I am sure a probably would not have thought they were gay and therefore not considered the surgeon as the second father
The riddle probably confuses people even more because what mother doctor would refuse to operate on their child to save their life? The doctor’s response skews people away from the maternal and paternal instincts. You’d think they would prefer to be the one doing it to ensure it got done right
Also there’s no way they would be waiting an hour if it were the doctor’s child so that messes people up even further
I think the brain is wired to automatically think that the surgeon is male, hence it became confusing that the one who died is the father. We sometimes forget that women/mothers can also be surgeons. We think past the obvious.
It was very interesting. I did go to the assumption was 2 fathers.
I had to read the riddle again. I must honestly say. I made the assumption that the surgeon was male.
I have medical professionals in my family. I still assumed male.
Confunde decir cirujano y no cirujana. Los sustantivos de profesión cuentan con una forma para cada género, por lo que entiendo que deben emplearse en femenino cuando el referente es una mujer.
It was very nice and interesting. brain is tuned automatically that the surgeon is male , we have to come out of the box think with a open mind .
This certainly opened my eyes and brings awareness to the fact that stereotypes might not be easily recognized.
I have done women’s advocacy work for decades and I was so shocked I missed this! I am humbled by the exercise and the bias that seems woven into me.
I think my English not really that good in understanding the previous story on this. So I missed perception. But after I figure it out why the answer is his mom, my other bugging questions is “why” a mom as a surgeon could not to a surgeon for his own son?
I think that it is a great thing to expand one’s knowledge.
I once gave this riddle to my wife and she did not get the answer.
My wife is a surgeon.
I’ve read the riddle 2x before I figured out that the surgeon is her mom.
Surgeon was boys mother
I was just wondering if at any point in the study anyone decided to reverse that narrative by doing the doctor one but by replacing only the word nurse in the scenario, and the same for the nurse example. Basically I want to know if they thought that it might be the wording of the riddles that made you think this way? Also, I take a remarkable amount of umbrage to the bible belt comment in the second or third paragraph, because I was raised in the “bible belt” and still live there. My first though was that it was a gay couple who adopted. Mostly because of the wording of the “riddle”. Plus, calling it a riddle generally makes it seem like you have to think outside of the box to get the answer, whereas thinking that the surgeon is the mother is rather more inside the box than most people would expect.
I thought it was the mother.
I thought the boy had 2 gay fathers.
I think that it is a great thing to expand one’s knowledge.
Going by the reality of this age, the doctor is either the biological Mother or the gay father, or the adopted mother.
Perhaps I over thought this. Going from the child had two fathers to the child’s mother was transitioning of that the father that passed away had transitioned.
After reading several of these comments, I can see that people are rather critical of this article, mainly because the structure of this experiment in that it uses a riddle as it’s main component and doesn’t take into consideration influences such as priming, language, creative thinking, control conditions, and alternate versions of the riddle. The validity of assuming people’s responses are due to schemas instead of other possibilities is a bit questionable. Experimentation around schemas could definitely improve to rule other causalities and better understand these mechanisms.
I do believe that schemas exist in our brains and our fairly similar to unconscious biases in that we’re often not aware of their existence and they don’t always align with our personal values and experiences. My mom was a high ranking officer in the military and yet when I think of people in that position, I mostly imagine men. Being aware that schemas and biases exist is the first step to untangling them. We need to be able to take a step back from our thoughts in order to restructure them or behave differently.
I think this article is great point of reference tools for us to go back to so we refresh our memory on how to solve our daly issues.
Je vous remercie beaucoup pour ce test. J’ai pensé à tout sauf une femme du fait qu’on ait dit LE médecin. Cela me renforce encore dans mon combat pour une écriture plus inclusive. Ma mère était médecin et on l’appelait le docteur ou le médecin : certains patients s’attendaient donc à voir un homme et manifestaient des doutes ou réticences. Petit à petit les patients ont parlé de la doctoresse ou la médecin ou femme médecin. Je m’en servirait dans mon travail sur la diversité. Merci