GMAT topics generally fall into one of two categories: things that people know and things that people don’t. When the average adult doesn’t know much about a topic, it’s easy to make a GMAT question. Exponents, triangles inscribed in circles, proper usage of the present perfect tense, and pretty much every Data Sufficiency question fall into this category. These questions don’t have to be especially tricky to be difficult.
But when the GMAT takes a topic that people do have some familiarity with- basic algebra or subject-verb agreement, for example- the GMAT needs a way to complicate the problem, oftentimes by preying upon the simple mistakes we all make. This is exactly what I see with Critical Reasoning questions. We make illogical arguments in our daily lives and refute other people’s illogical arguments with illogical rebuttals. I went to Notre Dame and therefore know that the University of Southern California will not win a national championship in football this year. Why? Because I hate USC. Is this logic sound? Probably not. My liking for USC’s football team doesn’t mean much when it comes to whether or not they will be successful this year. In the real world, we look for whether a fellow football fan likes or dislikes our favorite team before deciding whether they make a good argument. We look for a (D) or an (R) at the bottom of CSPAN before deciding whether a politician sounds intelligent. But if we can ignore these irrelevant items and focus on the point an argument is trying to make, we will be much more likely to spot bad answer choices in Critical Reasoning arguments and be able to quickly eliminate them on the GMAT.
Let’s take a look at a problem from the GMAT Official Guide to how these common errors in our thinking are used to make incorrect answer choices:
Question #48 in the Official Guide Critical Reasoning Section:
*Although computers can enhance people’s ability to communicate, computer games are a cause of underdeveloped communication skills in children. After-school hours spent playing computer games are hours not spent talking with people. Therefore, children who spend all their spare time playing these games have less experience in interpersonal communication than other children have.
The argument depends on which of the following assumptions?
Let’s take a minute to acknowledge all of our previous knowledge in this area so we can make sure to completely ignore it when we look at the answer choices. Let’s do our best Statler and Waldorf impression as we think about kids these day: they are wasting too much time playing computer games, they’re always on their cellphones and iPods, they don’t do their homework in schools, but it doesn’t matter because American public school system is in shambles. Now let’s throw all of that away and focus on the main point of the argument: children who spend all their spare time playing computer games have less experience in interpersonal communication than other children have. Or put another way: group A will have less experience than group B in interpersonal communication.
Before looking at the answer choices, I think it’s tremendously helpful to thoroughly understand every part of this conclusion. First off, who are we comparing? Group A vs. Group B. Children who spend all their spare time playing computer games vs. other children. Is there anything important that we notice about the groups we are comparing? The all in the argument is pretty extreme in its wording. If a student spends 90% of their time playing computer games, they are now apart of Group B. Also, we are only comparing what students do in their spare time. A student who spends all school day playing computer games or, lucky for him or her, got a job testing computer games would not necessarily be a part of Group A. Second, on what grounds are we comparing these two groups? We are trying to find which group has more experience in interpersonal communication. Not which group is better at communicating. Not which group is going to be smarter or more successful. And not which group is more likely to get a date to the high school prom. We need to stick to the given conclusion when we decide which assumption is needed to complete that conclusion. Now let’s take a look at the answer choices:
Although computers can enhance people’s ability to communicate, computer games are a cause of underdeveloped communication skills in children. After-school hours spent playing computer games are hours not spent talking with people. Therefore, children who spend all their spare time playing these games have less experience in interpersonal communication than other children have.
The argument depends on which of the following assumptions?
(A) Passive activities such as watching television and listening to music do not hinder the development of communication skills in children.
(B) Most children have other opportunities, in addition to after-school hours, in which they can choose whether to play computer games or to interact with other people.
(C) Children who do not spend all of their after-school hours playing computer games spend at least some of that time talking with other people.
(D) Formal instruction contributes little or nothing to children’s acquisition of communication skills
(E) The mental skills developed through playing computer games do not contribute significantly to children’s intellectual development.
Let me digress for a moment and say that the difference between an easy and difficult Critical Reasoning problem isn’t in the topic or question type, but how obvious some of the wrong answer choices are. On easier questions, there tend to be 3-4 bad answer choices, on more difficult problems there aren’t as many of these. In my opinion, this question has three bad answer choices- choices that don’t relate to the conclusion. See if you can identify them and try to state, in your own words, WHY they don’t relate to the main conclusion. This ability to not just justify the one correct answer but also explain why the other four answer choices are incorrect is incredibly valuable as you see harder questions.
Our main conclusion asked us to compare two groups: children who spend all their spare time playing computer games vs. other children. Two of the wrong answer choices introduce information about children’s lives outside of their spare time. Answer choices (B) & (D) give us reasons why students might or might not get experience in interpersonal communication outside of their spare time, but they are both irrelevant to the main conclusion. If I said Monday Joe was more productive than Saturday Joe, you wouldn’t be able to refute this by saying there are five other days of the week that Joe could be productive. You should also notice that both of these wrong answer choices do not differentiate between the two groups we are comparing. If both groups are receiving formal instruction that contributes little or nothing to communication skills, there is an even playing field for these two groups and the communication skills gained during children’s spare time would be even more essential.
Our other goal in this comparison is to focus on the interpersonal communication abilities of children. Answer choice (E) brings in a consideration other than communication skills. The argument is not concerned with saying that computer games have no beneficial aspects, only whether the computer games will result in lower interpersonal communication skills. If I said Monday Joe was more productive than Saturday Joe, you couldn’t refute this by saying that Saturday Joe was happier than Monday Joe.
These same types of irrelevant points are very common on the GMAT and the better you understand how and why they are irrelevant, the faster you will be able to spot and eliminate them on other Critical Reasoning questions. Not only will this help you on the GMAT, but your significant other will love when you accuse him or her of bringing in irrelevant information to the argument at hand.
Between the two remaining answer choices, (C) is correct because it does a better job of explaining why students who spend all their spare time will lag behind students who do not. Answer choice (A) does relate to students who play computer games and also discusses communication skills, but it has its own mistake- the conclusion doesn’t matter whether we are hindering the development of communication skills, only that some children are not getting the experience that other children are. In a few weeks we will talk about how to choose between tempting, trap answers and the correct answer choice. But if you can quickly eliminate irrelevant answer choices, you will have a much better chance of guessing on all questions and will hopefully will find it easier to compare two answer choices versus all five.
* GMATPrep questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.