Stereotype block or priming?

Hugh Coolican writes.

Elizabeth Kirkham uses the old chestnut riddle about the doctor being unable to treat a son when we know the father is elsewhere (News, July 2017). In what I believe is the older version, the father has been killed and the doctor is a surgeon called upon to operate on the critically injured child patient, strengthening further the impression that gender expectations explain people’s difficulty in identifying the surgeon as a mother, since female surgeons are less numerous than female doctors and certainly were when I used to use this problem in teaching. Kirkham says that her difficulty with the problem was ‘testament to the strength of negative stereotypes surrounding women’s scientific abilities’. I think however, that this is one of those cases where the explanation is ‘obvious’ but perhaps not necessarily correct.

I thought and taught that this was clearly an example of a stereotype block to thinking for many years until I came across this much simpler riddle. Two people are sitting on a park bench. One is the father of the other one’s son. Who is the other person? OK it’s obvious to you now in this context, but try it on your students. Although I didn’t test this empirically, my experience in teaching was that just as many students, after a series of attempts including stepfather, foster father, priest, grandfather, Mafia boss, and so on, got as completely stuck looking for an answer as with the doctor version. It appears that, having set up the father–son connection, people find it hard not to reverse the link to son–father. Perhaps also in the park bench version, through gendered expectation, women do not spring to mind as easily as men, but that might be a little far-fetched. Whatever the explanation, the reason for the problem with the doctor version cannot be only that we expect doctors to be male. Research needed.

Hugh Coolican
Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, Coventry University

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