The Surgeon (doctor) Riddle

This old riddle I knew as a child has recently been used to demonstrate ongoing gender stereotypes determined by research Wapman, M. and Belle,D. (2014) cited in BU (Boston University) Today.

The riddle:

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!”

How is that possible?

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.)

Barlow, R. (2014) BU Research: A Riddle Reveals Depth of Gender Bias . Available at: http://www.bu.edu/today/2014/bu-research-riddle-reveals-the-depth-of-gender-bias/  (Accessed: 16 November 2014)

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