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Social Studies: Less is more, subtle prejudice, and the height of power

An oft-told riddle exposes gender bias among college students.
An oft-told riddle exposes gender bias among college students.iStock

Mister surgeon

In a classic riddle, a father and son are in a car accident in which the father is killed and the son goes into surgery, but the surgeon says, “I can’t operate — that boy is my son!” How is that so? A study out of Boston University found that only 30 percent of college students who hadn’t heard the riddle before came up with the answer: The surgeon was the boy’s mother. The figure was especially striking because respondents were allowed to offer more than one guess. Higher percentages of students suggested the surgeon was an adoptive father, a same-sex father, or a stepfather. Female students were more likely to give the mother answer. But respondents, female or male, weren’t substantially more likely to offer the mother answer if they had working mothers, knew female doctors, or considered themselves feminists or liberals.


Belle, D. et al., “‘I Can’t Operate, That Boy Is My Son!’: Gender Schemas and a Classic Riddle,” Sex Roles (forthcoming).

More’s law

In a series of experiments asking people to improve a Lego structure or a miniature golf hole or to make a grid pattern more symmetric, people were biased toward adding rather than subtracting parts. Researchers argue the bias has major implications in human governance, calling it a “reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape, and damaging effects on the planet.”

Adams, G. et al., “People Systematically Overlook Subtractive Changes,” Nature (April 2021).

I feel your privilege

In an experiment, white people read statements written by other white people explaining why they supported equality and were not prejudiced against Black people. But not all those statements had the same effect. The writers had varying levels of underlying prejudice that researchers had documented in a separate exercise. And readers exposed to statements from more prejudiced writers subsequently reported higher prejudice themselves. This suggests prejudice can be subtly contagious, even when people aren’t trying to spread it.


Jacoby-Senghor, D. et al., “Not All Egalitarianism Is Created Equal: Claims of Nonprejudice Inadvertently Communicate Prejudice Between Ingroup Members,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Tall order

In a nationwide survey, taller people were more likely to believe that police can be justified in hitting a man, particularly when the man is throwing punches or trying to escape. The author of the study theorizes that taller people aren’t as bothered by aggression, since they are physically formidable themselves. The correlation between height and support for hitting by police was not as strong among Black respondents.

Urbatsch, R., “Physical Formidability and Acceptance of Police Violence,” Evolution and Human Behavior (forthcoming).