GMAT Tip of the Week: Avoid Beer Goggles on Verbal Questions

It’s Friday, so if you’re in the GMAT’s general demographic range (20-something, college grad, young professional) there’s a good chance you’ll hit a bar tonight. And there you may have a chance to witness (or experience) an age-old phenomenon that just may help you avoid a common pitfall on the GMAT:

Beer goggles.

If you’re unfamiliar, the general idea behind beer goggles is this – as the night goes on and you consume more alcohol, some options that you might not have considered early in the night begin to look a lot more alluring. And this concept doesn’t just apply to barroom romances – it’s actually a common mistake that people make on the GMAT. Here’s how that typically goes:

Particularly on Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension questions, students will read the prompt and the question and then have a good idea of what they want the right answer to look like. And when answer choice A doesn’t meet that narrow expectation, they emphatically eliminate it from consideration. When they are working through problems out of a book you can see this phenomenon more closely – the cross-out when they eliminate choice A is typically big and bold, a giant strikethrough to ensure that they never consider A again. B gets crossed out almost as emphatically if it doesn’t seem correct, and then once students hit choice C then D they start to eliminate a little less enthusiastically. Beer goggles have set in – once you get to choice D (the end of the night at the bar, so to speak) you’re much more willing to accept an option with a few flaws. An answer choice that you wouldn’t have considered at A or B starts to look a lot more appealing when it’s at D or E, much like an option that you might not have thought much about at 11pm could seem gorgeous at 1:30am.

Where this becomes problematic on the GMAT is that people often eliminate the correct answer at A or B because it’s not exactly what they want to see, but then they’ll take a flier on a significantly worse option at D or E because they have to pick something. And for whatever reason students are noticeably unlikely to return to choice A or B. They’ve so permanently eliminated those choices that they’ll just settle on D or E even though the best possible option is higher up the list. The lesson? Don’t eliminate an option at 11pm that might be your best option at closing time. Don’t let beer goggles get the best of you. Wait to make your decision on answer choice A until you’ve seen the other options.

To illustrate this principle, consider an example:

Which of the following best completes the passage below:

In testing for food allergies, a false positive result occurs when a person is said to be allergic to a particular food when, in fact, they are not allergic to that food. A false negative result indicates that a person is not allergic to the food when, in fact, they are. To most accurately determine food allergies, a physician should use the test that gives the smallest percentage of false negative results because ______________________.

(A) All tests for food allergies have the same proportion of false positive results.

(B) Accurate detection of food allergies early in a child’s life can help prevent illnesses and increase overall health.

(C) None of the tests for food allergies have lasting side effects.

(D) In diagnosing food allergies it is important to be as thorough as possible, since most people with one known food allergy have other undiscovered food allergies.

(E) Some food allergies cause reactions severe enough to be life-threatening.

When people read this question, they expect to see something about the danger of a false negative result (if you’re told you can eat peanut butter when in fact you have a life-threatening peanut allergy, that could be catastrophic). But the objective here isn’t “safety”, it’s “to accurately determine food allergies”. So A is the correct answer (if you can’t avoid a certain proportion of false positives, there’s no benefit to using a different test for those, so you’ll only need to focus on the false negatives), but people almost always eliminate A on this question, never to return. And by the time that people reach the later answer choices, E stands out as a beacon of hope to many although it’s incorrect (it has nothing to do with accuracy). So students generally don’t hold choice E up in comparison with A or even try to fit it with the objective (accuracy) in this Plan/Strategy question. They’ll talk themselves into choice E because of beer goggles – “I only have choices D and E left, it’s getting late, and I need to pick something so this one looks pretty good”.

Beware of beer goggles on GMAT verbal questions – when you’re not completely sold on answer choices D or E go back to choices A and B even if you’ve eliminated them already. The option you eliminated early in the night/question might have been “the one” all along.

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By Brian Galvin