Can You Solve the Surgeon Riddle?


Expectations help us quickly navigate our world. Yet they can also blind us to the simple solutions, talent, and opportunities that are right in front of us.

Dive deeper

We don’t just think surgeon = male. For the category of “career” in general, we’re more likely to associate “male” with “career” and “female” with “family”. See what associations your own mind holds by taking the Gender-Career Implicit Association Test.

“Dr. Stanford, who practices obesity medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and is a Harvard Medical School instructor, has carried the wallet-sized version of her medical license with her since 2016, when she read about a black doctor who was asked to show credentials when she offered to help a sick passenger […]” From Christine Hauser’s article in The New York Times: “‘Are you Actually an M.D.?’: A Black Doctor is Questioned as She Intervenes on a Delta Flight”

Research from Boston University shows that we still fall prey to the surgeon riddle: only 14% of BU students got the answer right. Full story by BU Today’s Rich Barlow.

“Soon there were #Ilooklikeanengineer tweets from women all over the world (and a few men) (and other creatures), tired of surprised looks when they meet a client for the first time, or arrive at an interview”. From Susan Svrluga’s “#ilooklikeanengineer wants to challenge your ideas about who can work in tech” (The Washington Post).

“A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what’s in front of it”. Watch this video by Canon Australia to see just how powerful our expectations can be.

“I work for a plumbing company. You probably wouldn’t guess by looking at me, but I talk about toilets all day long”. Put the face to this quote here.


Johnson, Carolyn Y. (2016, October 14). The disturbing reason why we don’t believe young black women are really doctors. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M.J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(41), 16474-16479.

Wilmuth, C. & Banaji, M. R. [Revisiting the Surgeon Riddle]. Unpublished raw data.


Operating on Autopilot was created and developed by Mahzarin Banaji, Olivia Kang, and Evan Younger with funding from PwC and Harvard University.

Narration by Olivia Kang, featuring Professor Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University) and excerpts from Radio Boston (courtesy of WBUR).

Sound Editing & Mixing by Evan Younger

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

Artwork by Olivia Kang