Male Doctors, Female Nurses: Subconscious Stereotypes Hard to Budge

a woman surgeon with mask on
Consciously, this image fits with your beliefs. But subconsciously, many of us still hold gender stereotypes that suggest men are doctors and women are nurses. (Image credit: megaflopp /

The conscious mind is quick to adapt to information that flies in the face of stereotype, but the subconscious may ignore even the most glaring of facts, new research finds.

When people are given two names, Jonathan and Elizabeth, and asked who is a doctor and who is a nurse, the respondents typically say that each is equally likely to be in either profession. But experiments based on how quickly people link the names with the jobs reveal that people's brains run on stereotype: The individuals are much more likely to associate Jonathan, a man, with doctoring, and Elizabeth, a woman, with nursing.

This kind of implicit association, or subconscious pairing based on stereotype, is well-known in psychology. But now, researchers find that even after people are directly told that Jonathan is a nurse and Elizabeth is a doctor, these implicit biases don't change. The stereotype acts like a "mental firewall" that seems to prevent people from updating their subconscious attitudes with the facts, said Jack Cao, a graduate student in psychology at Harvard University in Massachusetts. [6 Myths About Girls and Science]

Explicit vs. implicit

Cao and his advisor, Mahzarin Banaji, a social psychologist at Harvard, built their study on a body of research that finds that people's conscious attitudes tend to be more enlightened than their subconscious processing. These subtle, snap-judgment attitudes reveal themselves through implicit-association tasks, in which people are shown two words — say, "Elizabeth" and "doctor" — and asked to press a button if the words are related. Concepts that are linked more closely are processed more quickly, such that people tend to press the button faster if "doctor" is paired with Jonathan instead of with Elizabeth.

The researchers had their study participants complete one of these implicit-association tasks, and also asked the individuals to report their conscious beliefs about Jonathan's and Elizabeth's professions. The investigators then told the participants directly either that Jonathan was a doctor and Elizabeth a nurse, or that Elizabeth was a doctor and Jonathan a nurse.

Unsurprisingly, the participants had no problem repeating these facts back to the researchers. But the implicit-association task revealed that no matter what the participants had been told, they still subconsciously saw Jonathan as a doctor and Elizabeth as a nurse. 

"When we look at people's implicit responses, they don't update quite as quickly or easily or accurately" as explicit beliefs, Cao told Live Science.

Sticky beliefs

The researchers repeated their experiments with nearly 3,400 participants. In addition, the scientists varied the circumstances slightly: In one study, they used the names Richard and Jennifer and the professions doctor and artist. In another, the researchers picked made-up names that people wouldn't be able to associate with anyone they knew: Lapper for the man and Affina for the woman. In both cases, the researchers found the same results. People who were told that the man was in the female-stereotyped profession and the woman in the male-stereotyped profession had no trouble accepting those facts consciously, but still made implicit judgments based on stereotype.

In a final study, the researchers used two male names, Matthew and Benjamin, and the professions scientist and artist. These results showed that, without stereotype to rely on, people did update their subconscious beliefs easily; their implicit associations matched their explicit beliefs.

"There seems to be some stickiness in our implicit beliefs," Cao said. In their paper, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Cao and Banaji likened the phenomenon to the old riddle about a father and son who are in a terrible car accident. The father dies, and the son is rushed to the hospital, where the surgeon takes one look and says, "I can't operate on this patient! He's my son."

"In 1985, one of the authors of the present paper attempted to solve this riddle by weakly offering that perhaps the surgeon was the biological father and the other man was the adoptive father," the researchers wrote. "Much to this author's chagrin, the correct answer is that the surgeon is the boy's mother."

These stereotypes could be important in real life. In one study, published in PNAS in 2014, another team of researchers found that the stronger people's implicit association between men and math, the less likely the people were to hire a woman for a hypothetical job involving basic arithmetic. [5 Reasons Women Trail Men in Science]

Some studies have found that there are ways to budge people's implicit attitudes, Cao said. For instance, if people have a neutral attitude toward a man, it's easy to transform that into a strong negative reaction if you tell people that the man is a child molester. But fighting ingrained stereotypes may be a more difficult task, Cao said.

"There's a part of you that's clinging to the stereotype, even though you know the stereotype doesn't apply," Cao said.

Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.