How to Solve Method of Reasoning Questions on the GMAT

Critical Reasoning questions on the GMAT are primarily about strengthening or weakening the author’s conclusion. The stimulus of the question will describe some event or issue and then purport some conclusion, often one that is strikingly unsupported by the evidence.

Your job is usually to determine which answer choice would either enhance or undermine the professed conclusion. Sometimes, the question asks you to infer something that must be true from the text. The answer choices for these inference questions tend to have very high standards to meet because they must be true at all times (and not just when the moon is in Aquarius).

However, sometimes the question asks you to take a step back, and evaluate the “how” rather than the “what” of the conclusion. In other words, what the author says is less important than how they say it. These types of questions are known as “Method of Reasoning” (not to be confused with Methods of Mayhem) questions. You are in a unique position with these questions as they remove you from the argument and ask you simply to describe what is happening rather than to influence the conclusion.

I will use the OJ Simpson trial as a reference point. On a strengthen question, you’re playing the role of the District Attorney trying to make the case. On a weaken question, you’re playing the role of Robert Kardashian (yes, that Kardashian) trying to debunk the prosecution’s case. On an inference question, you’re playing the role of Judge Lance Ito, who has to make decisions based on what must be true. (If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit)  In a method of reasoning question, you play the role of the stenographer. The trial and alleged murder is irrelevant to you, your role is to impartially capture in writing what was said. Your opinion will not be solicited but you nevertheless have an important role to play in the proceedings.

In truth, your role is much more than simply transcribing what was said. You must determine how things were done and in what manner. You bear witness to the entire event and can make unbiased observations. Everyone else in the room may have their own agenda, but since you have no skin in the game, you can make observations without being swayed by personal beliefs or prejudices.

Let’s look at a Method of Reasoning question that captures the essence of describing what is happening:

Sarah, who is an excellent mechanic, said that in her opinion the used car John is considering is in good mechanical condition. However, it is clear that Sarah cannot be trusted to give an honest opinion, since when Emmett asked her opinion of his new haircut she lied and said she thought it looked good. Therefore, it is very likely that Sarah also lied in giving her opinion of the mechanical condition of that car.

The argument is flawed by virtue of having committed which one of the following errors of reasoning?

(A)   It fails to offer any grounds for the attack it makes on the character of the person.
(B)   It confuses claims about the past with claims about the future
(C)   It bases a sweeping claim on the evidence provided by an instance that is not clearly relevant
(D)  It presents evidence in value-laden terms that presuppose the conclusion for which that evidence is being offered.
(E)    It wrongly assumes that because someone is a competent judge of one kind of thing, that person will be a competent judge of a very different kind of thing.

This question is asking us to analyze the conclusion and indicate what the error in reasoning must be. Let’s go through them one by one and see which correctly describes this situation.

A)   The conclusion is indeed making an attack on the person’s character, but it does offer some (flimsy) evidence in the form of past fibbing. This is not the correct answer.
B)   The conclusion isn’t confusing the past and the present; it is referencing a situation in the past to predict future behavior (very much like jurisprudence). This is not the correct answer.
C)  The sweeping claim is that Sarah can never be trusted to be truthful about anything ever again (not uncommon for mechanics). The evidence provided is one instance about a completely different topic, so this answer choice correctly describes the entire process.
D)   The evidence presented in no way presupposes the conclusion, so this answer choice is out-of-scope (value-laden or not)
E)   This is the most common trap answer. The stimulus describes Sarah as being a competent mechanic, but it does not discuss her ability to gauge haircut quality. The answer choice is backwards at best and completely irrelevant at worst.

In some methods of reasoning questions, you can predict what the correct answer is going to look like. Fairly early on, it was pretty clear that telling a white lie once logically shouldn’t preclude you from ever being consulted on any topic ever again. If Sarah was not truthful once, would that mean that she could never again be trusted? (The answer to this rhetorical question is “Probably not”). On Method of Reasoning questions, it is important to describe the author’s conclusion rather than to change it. If you do this, you’ll find one answer choice fits like a glove.

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Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice for success on your exam.  After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.