The ‘surgeon’s dilemma’ shows just how readily many of us can slip into bias without realising it.
A father and his son were involved in a horrific car crash and the man died at the scene. But when the child arrived at the hospital and was rushed into the operating theatre, the surgeon pulled away and said: “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son”.
How can this be?
Have you worked it out yet? How long did it take?
This story – called the surgeon’s dilemma – is often used to demonstrate the way that unconscious bias works. Of course, the surgeon is the boy’s mother.
I must confess, that when psychologist and consultant, Graeme Russell, presented the exercise at a Diversity Council Australia forum last week, my mind raced first to consider the possibility that boy had two gay fathers. So, I am as sexist as anyone else . . . but at least I am gay-friendly.
When Russell asked the audience of about 150 how many of them got to the right answer, only about 30 per cent of them put up their hands. And it was a room full of diversity consultants and human resources people.
The DCA’s director for programs and development, Lisa Annese, related to the crowd how she had been appalled to see the results of a test designed to unearth her own biases. “I was actually a sexist bigot,” she said with a laugh. “But then I wondered, why is it that I don’t behave like that?”
The answer appears to be that we all have biases but they do not have to be reflected in our behaviour.
As Annese said, she had a strong sense of social justice, which meant she would be on her guard to make sure she treated everyone fairly. The point is: we are all biased, but as intelligent, thinking people, it is incumbent on us to question our responses and decisions to ensure we do the right thing.
“You don’t necessarily have to be who you have been told you are because you have been measured [in a test] and your responses have dictated it,” said Annese.
Participants at the forum also discussed the value of labelling biases as unconscious – a designation that may allow some people to feel they are off the hook.
They can’t do anything about it, because it is unconscious.
As the CEO of the DCA, Nareen Young, said: “Don’t we have to start dealing with conscious bias first? I am starting to think we have to start thinking about bias [as a whole]”