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Why the Most Boring Answer is Probably Right on CR Inference Questions

Posted in Test Prep on June 21, 2011 by

Walker Art GalleryI recently taught a particularly difficult Critical Reasoning Inference question. When no one chose the correct answer, I realized that many of my students were not employing one of most effective strategies on inference questions.

Here’s the question:

Not all art museums depend on financial support from the government. Some small, home-based art museums are funded primarily by the private wealth of their owners and do not rely on any government support or subsidies. At times, museums have even flourished in nations where there are no government funds allocated for showcasing arts. Financially, these museums rely entirely on the revenue generated from ticket sales and gift shop merchandise and, as such, tend to exist in societies that traditionally place a high value on fine arts.

The statements above, if true, best support which of the following as a conclusion?

A) Small art museums that operate out of the homes of individual wealthy benefactors receive no financial support from ticket sales and gift shop merchandise.
B) Museums found in societies that traditionally place a high value on fine arts tend to rely on revenue generated from ticket sales and gift shop merchandise.
C) An artist who joins a society that traditionally places a high value on fine arts may find no government funds allocated for showcasing of arts.
D) There are more art museums in societies that traditionally place a high value on fine arts than there are in societies that offer government funding for art museums.
E) An art museum that is not funded by either the local or national government must receive financial support either from its owner or from the revenue collected from ticket sales and gift shop merchandise.

If you’re not immediately drawn to answer choice C, there is something wrong with your understanding of inferences on the GMAT. That might sound harsh, but don’t take it personally. In fact, your initial failure to choose the correct inference might mean that you’re a more profound and interesting person than one who instinctively gravitates to the right answer. Why? Because the right answer on CR inference questions should be boring!

The weaker a statement, the more likely it is to be true. Thus, the right answer on CR inference questions will almost always be carefully worded, guarded, and lame. Don’t believe me? Which of these two claims would you be more likely to believe: 1) Sean is a GMAT instructor, or 2) Sean is the greatest GMAT teacher that ever lived, and students have erected a statue on Wall Street to honor him and penned a Bollywood musical to sing his praises? As much as I’d like the second statement to be true, the first is much more likely to be correct.

Returning to reality, let’s look at why C is the best answer choice for this inference question. Most students know to avoid extreme language when looking for a correct inference. Yet they often fail to see how words that don’t sound particularly extreme can make a statement stronger, and thus less likely to be true. Here, answer choices A and E both contain extreme words: A has “receive NO financial support,” and E has “MUST receive financial support.” But B and D also contain language that, while not as extreme as that in A and E, is also problematic. B tells us that certain museums “TEND to rely” on certain kinds of revenue. D makes a comparison.

Now look at C. It tells us what an artist “may” find. Sure, it has the phrase “no financial support” right after the “may,” so you may at first think that it is extreme. But really C is just about what is possible: an artist might find no government funding, but the choice leaves open the possibility that an artist could find a government just aching to hand out grants to support him or her.

When thinking about logical statements, it is useful to think of a “hierarchy of strength.”

The strongest statements discuss what MUST or CANNOT be true – these statements deal with necessity. (A and E in the choices above)

Then we have statements that deal what is probably true, what “tends” to be the case, or make comparisons. (B and D in the choices above)

At the bottom of the hierarchy are statements that deal in possibility, like correct choice C.  These are the weakest statements and are your best bet when debating between inferences.

TAKEAWAY:

Obviously, you need to take into the account the passage and what it actually says. But if you are stumped on an inference question, always go for the meeker, quieter, softer, weaker answer choices. Give more consideration to choices that discuss what is possible, rather than what is probable or necessary.  By choosing the boring, weaker choice, you’ll be on your way to a stronger score.