Riddle me this

A father and his son are out driving and are involved in a terrible accident. The father is killed instantly, and the son is in critical condition. The son is rushed to the hospital and prepared for an operation that could save his life. The surgeon comes in, sees the patient, and exclaims, “I can’t operate, that boy is my son!”

Who is the surgeon?

Take a moment to consider all possible solutions to this question. Really, take some time before reading on.

Image is from the Marion Fayolle of the NYT

Image is from the Marion Fayolle of the NYT


Maybe the surgeon is the boy’s gay second father! Maybe it is a case of adoption! Great guesses.

But did you consider that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother? If not, you’re in the overwhelming majority.

This is a famous proverbial riddle. The riddle has been around for decades, yet it continues to stump those who have never been exposed to the riddle. My undergrad senior psychology thesis explored how individuals respond to this classic riddle.

Deborah Belle, Professor of Psychology at Boston University, and I presented this riddle to two groups of participants: 197 BU Psychology students, and 103 children between the ages of 7 – 17 years old. In addition, we presented participants with a questionnaire in which we asked about their personal experience with women physicians and other experiential, attitudinal, and demographic variables.

In both groups, only a small minority of participants were able to imagine that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother: 14 percent of BU students, and 15 percent of children.

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Curiously, life experience (such as exposure to female doctors, working mothers, etc.) had no association with how one responded to the riddle. Even the majority of participants who have working mothers, or even mothers who are doctors were unable to imagine a surgeon mother in their solutions to the riddle. Other irrelevant factors include: gender of participant, personal exposure to female physicians, having had an employed mother, political views (conservative-liberal), social class growing up, and modern sexism scale scores.

Participants may have been stumped by the”surgeon mother” answer to the riddle, however, they had many, many ingenious explanations to the classic riddle. Some of these include:

  • Nurse has Alzheimer’s and is convinced the patient is her daughter.
  • Maybe the father who drives with the boy is a priest. They are often referred to as father.
  • The nurse is hallucinating, brainwashed, or delusional.
  • It was a dream.
  • What? No. Either the surgeon is lying, the paragraph is lying, or both.
  • The dad laid down and officials thought he was dead but he was alive.
  • It was a robot
  • I think the mom got back to life because maybe she could have just stopped breathing and then a miracle happened

More frequent responses to the riddle include: gay parent, adoption, mistaken identity, or step parentIn fact, participants were almost three times as likely to suggest gay parents as an explanation to the riddle as they were to come up with a female surgeon (37% versus 14%, respectively).

What makes it so difficult for participants to imagine a surgeon mother as a solution to the riddle? 

Gender schemas may explain our findings. Gender schemas are generalized, nonconscious hypotheses about the complex world around us, that don’t necessarily reflect one’s personal values or life experience. Gender schemas are very powerful, and resistant to change despite contradictory information. So, people are more likely to notice the things that fit into their schema, and re-interpret or distort those that contradict the preexisting schema. For a more flushed-out explanation of schemas, check out this interview with Virginia Vallian and the NYT, here.

Using gender schemas to interpret the riddle study’s findings, it makes sense that there is no statistically discernible association between participants who grew up with a surgeon mother, or had an operation with a surgeon mother, and the way these participants respond to the riddle. Men and women hold the same gender schemas, and begin acquiring them early in their childhood – explaining why there was no noticeable difference between how males and females responded to the riddle.

Gender schemas, one aspect of the schemas we each acquire, are generalized hypotheses about men and women. These hypotheses affect our expectations of men and women, our evaluations of their work, and their performance as professionals. As evidenced by the growing body of research, gender schemas tend to focus on a woman’s reproductive functioning, associating professional competence with men. Although experience does contribute to one’s schemas, it is far less than you’d expect – exactly what we our data suggested in our riddle study.

So what? How does this silly riddle interact with our lives?

Gender schemas eek their way into our lives in subtle, profound ways.


For example, you’re reading the newspaper:

A Berkeley physicist reported today that…


(scroll down)




                                                                                                 her research team had discovered…


Other studies point to the pervasiveness of gender schemas. Moss-Racusin et al. (2012) found significant gender bias among the Science Department Faculty, as Yale faculty participants rated “male” applicants as significantly more hirable, competent, more deserving of mentoring and a higher salary than identical “female” applicants, while the “female” applicants were rated as more likable. Faculty participant bias was independent of age, gender, scientific discipline, and tenure status.

These studies contribute to the large body of research highlighting the problems facing women in the workplace. One fundamental aspect of schemas is their resistance to change or adaptation, despite contradicting information. In the case of gender schemas, men are perceived as more competent and hirable, while women are perceived as warm and nice.

How then, can we confront the effects of these schemas?

Eternal vigilance. Self-awareness that we each hold certain biases about men and women, as we approach job applicants, writers, authors, scientists, politicians.. every individual we encounter. Our perceptions and judgements of individuals are colored by gender schemas, and our judgements are prone to error.

Gender schemas do change, though at a slow, unhurried pace.


Read other coverage of our research here, or here