How to Answer GMAT Questions That are About an Unfamiliar Topic

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomUsually, GMAT questions that are based on your field of work or interests are simple to comprehend and relatively easy to answer correctly. But what happens when, say, an engineer gets a question based on psychiatry? Is he or she bound to fail? No.

Remember that the GMAT offers a level playing field for test takers from different backgrounds – it doesn’t matter whether your major was literature or physics. If you feel lost on a question about renaissance painters, remember that the guy next to you is lost on the problem involving planetary systems.

So how can you successfully handle GMAT questions on any topic? By sticking to the basics. The logic and reasoning required to answer these questions will stay the same no matter which field the information in the question stem comes from.

To give an example of this, let’s today take a look at a GMAT question involving psychoanalysis:

Studies in restaurants show that the tips left by customers who pay their bill in cash tend to be larger when the bill is presented on a tray that bears a credit-card logo. Consumer psychologists hypothesize that simply seeing a credit-card logo makes many credit-card holders willing to spend more because it reminds them that their spending power exceeds the cash they have immediately available.

Which of the following, if true, most strongly supports the psychologists’ interpretation of the studies? 

(A) The effect noted in the studies is not limited to patrons who have credit cards. 
(B) Patrons who are under financial pressure from their credit-card obligations tend to tip less when presented with a restaurant bill on a tray with credit-card logo than when the tray has no logo.
(C) In virtually all of the cases in the studies, the patrons who paid bills in cash did not possess credit cards.
(D) In general, restaurant patrons who pay their bills in cash leave larger tips than do those who pay by credit card.
(E) The percentage of restaurant bills paid with given brand of credit card increases when that credit card’s logo is displayed on the tray with which the bill is prepared.

Let’s break down the argument:

Argument: Studies show that cash tips left by customers are larger when the bill is presented on a tray that bears a credit-card logo.

Why would that be? Why would there be a difference in customer behavior when the tray has no logo from when the tray has a credit card logo? Psychologists’ hypothesize that seeing a credit-card logo reminds people of the spending power given by the credit card they carry (and that their spending power exceeds the actual cash they have right now).

The question asks us to support the psychologists’ interpretation. And what is the psychologists’ interpretation of the studies? It is that seeing a logo reminds people of their own credit card status. Say we change the argument a little by adding a line:

Argument: Studies show that cash tips left by customers are larger when the bill is presented on a tray that bears a credit-card logo. Patrons under financial pressure from credit-card obligations tend to tip less when presented with a restaurant bill on a tray with credit-card logo than when the tray has no logo.

Now, does the psychologists’ interpretation make even more sense? The psychologists’ interpretation is only that “seeing a logo reminds people of their own credit card status.” The fact “that their spending power exceeds the cash they have right now” explains the higher tips. If we are given that some customers tip more upon seeing that card logo and some tip less upon seeing it, it makes sense, right? Different people have different credit card obligation status, hence, people are reminded of their own card obligation status and they tip accordingly.

Answer choice B increases the probability that the psychologists’ interpretation is true because it tells you that in the cases of very high credit card obligations, customers tip less. This is what you would expect if the psychologists’ interpretation were correct.

In simpler terms, the logic here is similar to the following situation:

A: After 12 hours of night time sleep, I can’t study.
B: Yeah, because your sleep pattern is linked to your level of concentration. After a long sleep, your mind is still muddled and lazy so you can’t study.
A: After only 4 hrs of night time sleep, I can’t study either.

Does B’s theory make sense? Sure! B’s theory is that “sleep pattern is linked to level of concentration.” If A sleeps too much, her concentration is affected. If she sleeps too little, again her concentration is affected. So B’s theory certainly makes more sense.

Let’s now review answer choice E since it tends to confuse people:

(E) The percentage of restaurant bills paid with given brand of credit card increases when that credit card’s logo is displayed on the tray with which the bill is prepared.

This option supports the hypothesis that credit card logos remind people of their own card – not of their card obligations. The psychologists’ interpretation talks about the logo reminding people of their card status (high spending power or high obligations). Hence, this option is not correct.

Now let’s examine the rest of the answer choices to see why they are also incorrect:

(A) The effect noted in the studies is not limited to patrons who have credit cards.

This argument is focused only on credit cards, not on credit cards and their logos, so this is irrelevant.

(C) In virtually all of the cases in the studies, the patrons who paid bills in cash did not possess credit cards.

This option questions the validity of the psychologists’ interpretation. Hence, this is also not correct.

(D) In general, restaurant patrons who pay their bills in cash leave larger tips than do those who pay by credit card.

This argument deals with people who have credit cards but are tipping by cash, hence this is also irrelevant.

Therefore, our answer is B.

We hope you see that if you approach GMAT questions logically and stick to the basics, it is not hard to interpret and solve them, even if they include information from an unfamiliar field.

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Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!