GMAT Tip of the Week: Your MLK Study Challenge (Remove Your Biases)

As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. this weekend, you may take some of your free time to study for the GMAT. And if you do, make sure to heed the lessons of Dr. King, particularly as you study Data Sufficiency.

If Dr. King were alive today, he would certainly be proud of the legislation he inspired to end much of the explicit bias – you can’t eat here, vote there, etc. – that was part of the American legal code until the 1960s. But he would undoubtedly be dismayed by the implicit bias that still runs rampant across society.

This implicit bias is harder to detect and even harder to “fix.” It’s the kind of bias that, for example, the movie Freaknomics shows; often when the name at the top of a resume connotes some sort of stereotype, it subconsciously colors the way that the reader of that resume processes the rest of the information on it.

While that kind of subconscious bias is a topic for a different blog to cover, it has an incredible degree of relevance to the way that you attack GMAT Data Sufficiency problems. If you’re serious about studying for the GMAT, you’ll probably have long enacted your own versions of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act well before you get to test day – that is to say, you’ll have figured out how to eliminate the kind of explicit bias that comes from reading a question like:

If y is an odd integer and the product of x and y equals 222, what is the value of x?

1) x > 0

2) y is a 3 digit number

Here, you’ll likely see very quickly that Statement 1 is not sufficient, and come back to Statement 2 with fresh eyes. You don’t know that x is positive, so you’ll quickly see that y could be 111 and x could be 2, or that y could be -111 and x could be -2, so Statement 2 is clearly also not sufficient. The explicit bias that came from seeing “x is positive” is relatively easy to avoid – you know not to carry over that explicit information from Statement 1 to Statement 2.

But you also need to be just as aware of implicit bias. Try this question, as it is more likely to appear on the actual GMAT:

If y is an odd integer and the product of x and y equals 222, what is the value of x?

1) x is a prime number

2) y is a 3 digit number

On this version of the problem, people become extremely susceptible to implicit bias. You no longer get to quickly rule out the obvious “x is positive.” Here, the first statement serves to pollute your mind – it is, on its own merit, sufficient (if y is odd and the product of x and y is even, the only prime number x could be is 2, the only even prime), but it also serves to get you thinking about positive numbers (only positive numbers can be prime) and integers (only integers are prime). But those aren’t explicitly stated; they’re just inferences that your mind quickly makes, and then has trouble getting rid of. So as you assess Statement 2, it’s harder for you to even think of the possibilities that:

x could be -2 and y could be -111: You’re not thinking about negatives!

x could be 2/3 and y could be 333: You’re not thinking about non-integers!

On this problem, over 50% of users say that Statement 2 is sufficient (and less than 25% correctly answer A, that Statement 1 alone is sufficient), because they fall victim to that implicit bias that comes from Statement 1 whispering – not shouting – “positive integers.”

Harder problems will generally prey on your more subtle bias, so you need to make sure you’re giving each statement a fresh set of available options. So this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, applaud the progress that you have made in removing explicit bias from your Data Sufficiency regimen – you now know not to include Statement 1 directly in your assessment of Statement 2 ALONE – but remember that implicit bias is just as dangerous to your score. Pay attention to the times that implicit bias draws you to a poor decision, and be steadfast in your mission to give each statement its deserved, unbiased attention.