If you guessed that the surgeon is the boy’s step-father, or second father in a gay marriage, you get a point for thinking outside the box. But did you also guess that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother? If you did, you’re part of a surprising minority.
The riddle reveals the unexpected power of unconscious biases. In research conducted by Mikaela Wapman and Deborah Belle, even young people and self-identified feminists tended to overlook the possibility that the surgeon in the riddle is female. Only 14% of Boston University students came up with the correct answer-and their life experiences, even if their own mothers were doctors or surgeons, seemed to influence how they performed.
Likewise, with the genders of the riddle reverse, where a mother is killed, her daughter sent to the hospital, and the nurse declines to attend to the patient because “that girl is my daughter”; few people guess that the nurse could be the father.