Advertising and Assumption Questions
Quick, what do the “Sham Wow!,” OxyClean, the “Snuggie,” and “pet insurance” all have in common? They are all things that you did not know you needed until somebody told you about them. Advertisements are designed first to create a sense of need in the viewer and then to satisfy that need. This is exactly what the correct answer on an assumption question does as well.
I am always looking for new ways to help students understand assumption questions. This is probably the toughest critical reasoning question type for most students. Assumption questions require students to think in a way that is unexpected. For other critical reasoning questions the test taker must analyze what happens when you ADD the answer choice to the argument. Does this one strengthen when added? Does this one weaken when added? With assumption questions the student has to find a reliable way to think about what happens when the answer choice is taken away and this is not necessarily a natural thing to do. Typically this is done by the “Assumption Negation Technique” (also called various things like “Answer negation” or “The Denial Test”).
The Assumption Negation Technique is a powerful tool and one that we certainly teach at Veritas. However, negating all five answer choices is not recommended as it takes time and can actually be quite confusing. It is better to first eliminate answer choices that cannot be the correct answer and to save the Assumption Negation Technique for its true purpose: helping you to make that crucial final choice between two difficult answer choices. A true understanding of assumption questions will allow you to start with something more efficient and save the Assumption Negation Technique for emergencies.
One of the best ways that I have found to help students truly understand assumption questions is to explain that the correct answer to an assumption question is like a commercial. Think about what a commercial is designed to do, a commercial is meant to instill a desire in the mind of the person watching and then to offer the product that fulfills that desire. Did you know that you had a need for a blanket with arms sewn into it called a “Snuggie”? Not until you saw the commercial! There are entire 30-minute long television shows called “infomercials” that are designed to make you feel like something is missing in your life and at the same time offer you the very product that can fill that gap.
The original infomercial was probably for the Ginsu knives. The ideal viewer reaction was “Wow I did not know that they even made a knife that sharp, can my set of knives cut through an aluminum can?” First the viewer starts to doubt things that he or she never even worried about before, for example, “Are my knives sharp enough?,” “Are my clothes bright enough?” and “Why do I not have medical insurance for my cat or dog?” Then, conveniently the product offers to solve the problem. This is precisely what the correct answer to an assumption question does. It brings up a potential flaw in the argument that you never even considered and then tells you not to worry, that flaw is eliminated by the answer choice.
The Infomercial Test
The argument made in the stimulus of a higher-level assumption question often seems very convincing, with no obvious flaws. By contrast, a tough strengthen or weaken question often allows you to see right from the start that additional information is needed. Maybe the argument tells you that “because something worked in Italy, it will also work in France.” Likely, you can see the gap in the logic: you need to know if Italy is like France. In fact this argument would work well for a strengthen question, but also for a weaken question, where the correct answer would let us know that Italy and France are very different.
This “spotting the gap in the logic” is what people often recommend for assumption questions as well – and it can work, especially on easier questions. But on more difficult questions it is far more likely that the GMAT will offer you a correct answer choice that is based on the “infomercial” model – the correct answer will point out a potential problem that you never expected, and then immediately tell you not to worry, the answer choice can solve that problem. Let’s look at an example to see how this works.
Here is an example, just the stimulus and question first, answer choices later:
In North America there has been an explosion of public interest in, and enjoyment of, opera over the last three decades. The evidence of this explosion is that of the 70 or so professional opera companies currently active in North America, 45 were founded over the course of the last 30 years.
The reasoning above assumes which one of the following?
Okay, so what is the gap? Not so simple right? To me this seems to be a well-constructed argument. In other words, the evidence leads to the conclusion. The conclusion is that there is an explosion of interest in opera over the last 30 years and the evidence is that 45 Opera companies have been founded over that time (out of just 70 total). That is pretty good evidence. If you told me that out of 70 football clubs in England 45 were founded in the last 30 years I would conclude that football (a.ka. soccer) is doing pretty well in England.
So what could the assumption be? Instead of trying to guess ahead of time what the assumption is, try looking for the answer choice that presents a problem that you did not anticipate and (like and good commercial) also gives you the solution.
Remember the argument is that there is an explosion of interest in opera over the last 30 years and the evidence is that 45 Opera companies have been founded over that time (out of just 70 total). Okay here are the answer choices, see what you can do.
A. All of the 70 professional opera companies are commercially viable options.
B. There were fewer than 45 professional opera companies that had been active 30 years ago and that ceased operations during the last 30 years.
C. There has been a corresponding increase in the number of professional companies devoted to other performing arts.
D. The size of the average audience at performances by professional opera companies has increased over the past three decades.
E. The 45 most recently founded opera companies were all established as a result of enthusiasm on the part of a potential audience.
What did you come up with? Remember that the correct answer to an assumption question – very much like the correct answer to an inference question – cannot provide you with completely new information. This means that choice A is eliminated right off the bat. It would certainly strengthen our argument to know that ALL if the professional opera companies are commercially viable, but this not necessary and it is new information. We are relying on the fact that 45 companies were established not that they all made money.
Choice C is also completely new information and is also not necessary. Why would an increase in interest in the other performing arts mean that there cannot be an explosion of interest in Opera? Choice D is tempting and is a very nice strengthen answer. But is also does not point out an unexpected flaw in our logic. Choice D brings new information that the average size of the audience is increasing. It would be great to know this but the argument is relying on the evidence of 45 companies being founded and that is where the unexpected flaw needs to come from. So choice D is out.
That leaves choices B and E. At this point you can certainly decide to use the Assumption Negation Technique to negate these two answers, both of which mention the 45 companies that were recently founded. The founding of those companies is our evidence so either of these answer choices might be correct.
However, before you negate these choices why not apply the “infomercial test?” Which of these answer choices points out a legitimate, if unexpected, flaw in the argument and then immediately corrects it? The answer is choice B. When reading this argument you likely did not say to yourself – “45 opera companies were founded over the last 30 years but what if more than 45 went out of business?” It is like the Sham Wow! or the Snuggie – you were not looking for choice B, but now that you have seen it you know you can’t live without it.
You see, in somewhat complicated language, choice B points out the possibility that 45 or more opera companies “ceased operations” in the last 30 years. If this were true then the evidence that 45 companies were founded in the last 30 years suddenly becomes very weak. Is there really an explosion of interest in opera if more companies went out of business than were founded? So choice B gets you very worried that you do not have a good argument here. But like any good infomercial it then reassures you. It states that “There were fewer than 45 companies…” that ceased operations. So, no need to worry. The flaw that you were not thinking of, the possibility that more than 45 companies went out of business was mentioned and then protected against. This is the way that the correct answers to assumption questions operate.
Why is choice E not correct? Simple, this argument does not rely on the 45 companies being founded for any particular reason. It simply relies on the fact that they were founded. In other words the evidence is about an increased number of opera companies not about enthusiasm on the part of the audience. This answer choice actually provides new information and not an unexpected flaw in this argument. It fails the “infomercial test.”
Official Guide Questions
If you have the 12th or 13th edition of the Official Guide here are some problems you might want to try this technique on.
- Question 77 (13th edition) 78 (12th edition)
- Question 93 (12th and 13th edition)
- Question 106 (13th edition) new to 13th.
Compare these to question 21 (13th edition)/ 20 (12th edition) which is an easier assumption and where the correct answer can be much more easily anticipated.
Let me leave you with this example that I sometimes use in class: Can you think of the three actual assumptions that I am relying on for my conclusion? Conclusion “My friend will pick me up at the Boston airport.” That seems straight-forward but what there are problems that you have likely never even considered. How might my conclusion go wrong? It is your job to be the infomercial, point out the possible flaws in my argument, but state them in such a way that you actually take away the flaw even as you name it. I have found three actual assumptions that the above conclusion relies on, can you name them?
Go ahead and type into the comments below ONE assumption (leave some glory for the other folks).