The Real World versus GMAT Critical Reasoning


There isn’t really much relationship between GMAT Critical Reasoning and the Real World

GMAT Critical Reasoning questions are extremely tightly-constructed little logic bombs that have nothing to do with the Real World. While it’s not pleasant to have to say this, I think it’s worth stressing.

Seriously, though, it’s too bad: wouldn’t things be a lot easier if all the world were nice and clean and followed rules the way Critical Reasoning questions do? Unfortunately, however, there are a lot of factors that we have to consider out there in the Real World and there is no way to account for this legitimately in a tiny puzzle like a GMAT CR question.

Another way to consider it is that if we wanted to think “logically” in the meatspace, we would necessarily need to limit the factors we consider (reductivism anyone?)–until we accidentally exclude factors that might in fact contribute to the problem–this is getting abstract and probably doesn’t have much to do with the GMAT, so I’ll stop here.

Instead, it helps to understand how the GMAT sets up an argument. We need to make sure that we stay within these boundaries. It’s vitally important here to note an argument’s boundaries are ALWAYS given in the Conclusion of the argument.

Outside this, I think it’s helpful to outline some other ways GMAT Critical Reasoning questions and the Real World aren’t the same. This takes us back to the Bucket System that you are hopefully already familiar with from Reading Comprehension.

GMAT critical reasoning
Yes, really.

How to Use the Bucket System for GMAT CR

In short, the Bucket System lumps each incorrect answer for CR into one of three “buckets.” These are: Out of Scope, Leap, or Opposite.

Let’s go into a bit more detail here: 

Out of Scope (OOS): this is something that might actually be true, but it isn’t related properly to the Conclusion of the argument.

LEAP: this answer might be true if I assume something or bend it to fit. If you really have to fight it to make it work, it won’t be your answer. 

Opposite: these would be the kind that say precisely the… wait for it… opposite of what you want. Excellent observation. Now it seems as if it would be pretty stupid to pick the answer that’s literally saying exactly what you don’t want, but I counter that Opposites are the most pernicious sort of wrong answer choices in GMAT CR. 

The issue here is that GMAT Critical Reasoning loves giving you so many double (and rarely, but sometimes triple) negations. These make it spectacularly difficult to tell what direction the argument is actually pointing. 

How the GMAT Differs from the Real World

It’s actually nice in some poetic way that the Real World is subtle. It’s complex. There are many things competing against each other. On myriad levels, people don’t actually know what’s going on because they simply don’t have the information to tell. 

(And OK, fine. Big Tech has that information and that’s why they rule the world. However, if you think Data is the new gold, think again: Information Asymmetry and processing power, but more importantly the former, are the only reason that these unholy behemoths have the power they have). 

An amazing point about the GMAT is that it’s not particularly subtle and it’s actually not particularly complicated. At least not compared with the Real World. You’re thrown a little question-system that’s tightly constructed like a good mechanical watch. Stuff fits or stuff doesn’t fit. Simple.

The best bet? Interrogate the Conclusion very carefully. If the answer choice doesn’t fit properly within the boundaries of the Conclusion you can simply ignore it! OOS. Yes, I said that.

If the answer choice is looking for some sort of competing interest or extra logical step, you can call it a LEAP. 

Opposites are a strange animal, because these are actually pretty unlikely to present themselves in the Real World. It’s fairly rare for something to be the exact opposite of what you’d expect (notable exception: every single day of 2016). However as we whack information into more and more silos and tribalize like a bunch of fucking idiots, this becomes more frequent.

The antidote to suck assholery, of course, is having (and believing, naturally) CORRECT information. 

Nevertheless, it’s obvious that powerful folks everywhere (check yourself: it’s both sides, not just “the other side”) have legitimate financial and power-based reasons to mislead to manipulate their own tribes (and often even the competition), there’s little surprise that the West is rapidly going insane.

The Nice, Comfortable Thing About Living in GMAT Critical Reasoning-World

On the GMAT, the task is to organize properly whatever information they’ve given you.

There’s not very much of this information. You have Facts, an Assumption (often not explicitly stated unless it’s one of those questions where they are asking you to identify the assumption, then duh), and a Conclusion.

The Conclusion will invariably be your key to what the argument is really trying to say. What’s it about? Well, whatever the Conclusion is talking about, naturally.

Now these Facts could lead us along quite a few different paths, but it is always the Conclusion, specifically, that defines the argument itself. The absolute must to remember, though, is that the Conclusion might define the boundaries of the argument–and yet it is not necessarily true.

What on Earth is a Counterfactual?

Ah, well, this is the thing you’d think no one would ever miss, and only if it were so…

The mistake that’s far too easy to make is to attempt to prove the Conclusion. Rather, you want to find the weakness in the Conclusion, or even potentially to disprove it completely. However, if you lose sight of the ball (easily done if you’re nervous or tired), it’s easy to mistake the goal here and attempt to get that Conclusion to work by choosing an answer that contradicts (or totally negates) one of the provided Facts.

Naturally, this is a terrible idea.

Stay with me: Facts are vital to the argument. They are sacrosanct; we cannot change Facts. Facts are, invariably true. They are unchangeable. 

Now of course there might be an answer–and GMAT loves providing these–that suggests that the Conclusion is true, but only if we were to alter, delete, or ignore a given Fact. Yet if we do so, we simply have a different argument. It’s not necessarily even untrue, but it’s not what the question is asking for. 

This is a bit like saying…

It sucks that this marble drops when I hold it in the air and release it. Let me redefine the universe such that the Law of Gravity doesn’t exist; in this case, the marble will just float there in the air and I’ll be happy.

Remember, you’re better than this (even if your crazy uncle isn’t). If you’re conscious of the Facts themselves, you can be aware of when a Counterfactual answer presents itself–and avoid that answer.

Just because it happens in the Real World…

In many cases, it’s possible that outside knowledge is available regarding whatever the topic of the GMAT CR question is. Let’s look at this Official example:

Last year all refuse collected by Shelbyville city services was incinerated. This incineration generated a large quantity of residual ash. In order to reduce the amount of residual ash Shelbyville generates this year to half of last year’s total, the city has revamped its collection program. This year city services will separate for recycling enough refuse to reduce the number of truckloads of refuse to be incinerated to half of last year’s number.

Let’s just take a leap and say that you got your MSc in Sanitation Engineering. Now then you’d know quite well that it’s impossible to keep the level of ash the same (or perhaps increase it) while halving the number of truckloads.

It’s clear to you that there is no possible way to compact this stuff and more than has already been done. You know the city codes well and you understand that even making them five percent larger would make them too wide for the streets. Therefore, it would be impossible to double their size. And so forth…

Now chew on this: the argument doesn’t care what you know. It doesn’t matter, because not everyone is a licensed Sanitation Engineer like you, and that woman with the 770 over there isn’t and she doesn’t care and she still got the damn question right! Get over yourself.

In other words, it is imperative that the argument be considered on only as a function of itself rather than of any other knowledge that may be (but probably isn’t) helpful in the long run.

All you need to know in this case is that cutting the number of truckloads in half doesn’t necessarily mean that the amount of ash is reduced by half. That’s it.

The boundaries of the argument are what they are–and they’re stated explicitly in the Conclusion–and if you stay within those, you’ll be safe. Regardless of your expert opinion.    

“True” and “Correct” Are NOT Equal 

Sure, you could easily make a statement in an answer choice such as “all cats have four legs.” While this is true, within reason, if the argument itself is about cockatoos or chimpanzees, the statement wouldn’t make a lot of sense because…

…hold on a second…


Yup, lots of things might be true–and this goes double for things that might be true in the Real World–and these things very much DO NOT correspond to the boundaries of the argument that we know from… reading the Conclusion. 

Let’s look at another Official example:

Springfield Fire Commissioner: The vast majority of false fire alarms are prank calls made anonymously from fire alarm boxes on street corners. Since virtually everyone has access to a private telephone, these alarm boxes have outlived their usefulness. Therefore, we propose to remove the boxes. Removing the boxes will reduce the number of prank calls without hampering people’s ability to report a fire.

OK, let’s assume we want to Strengthen the argument.

Here’s a potential answer choice: 

Responding to false alarms significantly reduces the fire department’s capacity for responding
to fires.

And yeah, that’s pretty solid. That might in fact be true–in the Real World–but then if we focus on the Conclusion: 

Removing the boxes will reduce the number of prank calls without hampering people’s ability to report a fire.

So what does the answer choice about the fire department’s ability to respond to fires have to do with removing the boxes? Yeah, nothing. You’re right. Go buy yourself a Chipotle. Extra guacamole.

The CORRECT answer, on the other hand, would look something like this:                

The fire department traces all alarm calls made from private telephones and records where they came from.

The point where is that this answer specifically addresses the point in the argument that the calls are made anonymously. That is, the anonymity and the prank calls are tied to each other.

This provides an excellent reason for removing the boxes: this would make it harder for prank callers to remain anonymous (presuming there are not other widely-available anonymous phone systems). By reducing anonymity, it follows reasonably enough that we will reduce the number of prank calls.

That’s not 100%, of course, but it’s one hell of a lot closer than the answer choice about reducing the fire department’s capacity, which (still) is completely irrelevant to the actual argument.

Learn this:

Read the Conclusion again. Think you got it? Read it once more. 

Ask yourself: even if my answer choice is true in the Real World, does my answer choice match what is being discussed in the Conclusion? If NO, forget it. 

Why? Because that’s not the answer. Glad that’s clear now.

Is This Even Reasonable Given the Argument’s Boundaries?

OK, seriously, I’m sorry I have to say this, but given that sometimes the answer choices are just absurd I suppose it needs to be stated directly. 

If the answer choice seems completely nutbag-cray-cray even within the nice, orderly world of the argument, I beg of you not to choose it.

I mean if it seems ridiculous at first glance, it is. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, yes? Just mark that and put it aside until all of the others have been eliminated. 99% you’ll find another answer choice that, you know, isn’t completely insane and still works.

And then that 1% of the time, you see that the rest of the answers are DEMONSTRABLY WRONG. In this case, if this answer might be a bit odd, a bit eccentric, but it works… 

Just don’t make a habit of it. Remember, ONLY IF ALL FOUR OTHER ANSWERS ARE CLEARLY INCORRECT.

Is GMAT Critical Reasoning Biased Toward the Modern West? 

Gee, I don’t know. I mean it’s a modern exam made in the West. Would it be odd of me to say “perhaps?”

And this isn’t a bunch of crap about “English is my second language” affecting people–if you’re worried about that, go take TOEFL, but seriously, most of the highest Verbal scorers I have worked with have NOT had English as a first language so that is empirically NOT an excuse.

But yeah, if we want to plug our ears, cover our eyes, and pretend that Western influence doesn’t creep into the logic of this exam then we’re lying to ourselves and everyone else to whom we repeat said lie. 

There are many, many unseen logical structures built into GMAT Critical Reasoning questions. What’s “reasonable,” what’s not. Even the concept of binary logic itself, to a large degree, is a Western invention. Dog knows how many people that one has killed over the years…

Anyway, the first step to recognize the problem is to admit that it exists. We know the goalposts might be hidden, but we have to come to a reasonable understanding of where those goalposts might lie before we run headlong into them. Concussions aren’t fun.

So… how does one induce or “infer” an answer safely by the GMAT’s fine standard? What would the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-dancing writers of the GMAT find to be an Assumption that is both reasonable and non-trivial? What is something they would not mark as posing a problem? 

Well, I hate to break it to you, but life is full of Assumptions. We’ve talked about this before. Assumptions are everywhere. A lot of these Assumptions, like it or not, are simply about what is “reasonable” to the writers of the GMAT (and few others, I’m afraid to say). 

You can use a simple rule of thumb here: the writers of the GMAT believe that we live in a truth-based world and people all have the same sort of respectable motives that one might expect in a small, Midwestern town during Clinton’s presidency. 

But you probably weren’t out of diapers at that point, so it might be difficult to imagine life before the world went bananas in 2001, 2008, 2016, 2020, etc. But remember Clinton (or imagine)–the only person who saw that shit coming was the dude who wrote Fight Club.

But let’s see if any of this stuff resonates, even if it’s no longer true:

–People care about others and the majority matters more than personal profit motive.

–Businesses care about their employees, and people are more important than stock prices.

–The government is an institution by the people, for the people (that is, not by the elites to line their own pockets by funneling money upward from the plebiscite).

Now having the more modern view works well in the Real World because, you know, that’s how shit is. Yet the GMAT does not assume that everyone is working her own angle. Any actual justification for something, according to the GMAT, must be based on sound principles: of business, economics, or pro-social behavior. 

Put another way, the GMAT seems to believe in shit like the US Constitution or even the general gist of the Enlightenment: liberty, equality, brotherhood. 

So basically that knocks out most of the crazy-nutty conspiratorial answers, as well as those where the employees are bullied or someone is scapegoated, or blah blah blah. Check this:  

The fuel efficiency of the Skybus would enable Northern Air to eliminate refueling at some of its destinations, but several mechanics would lose their jobs.

Oh dear, whatever will happen to these poor mechanics? And yet, mechanics are some of the few people who actually still have practical skills. Mechanics will not be starving when the current technocracy by the elites, for the elites drives us into an irreversible Mad Max scenario. White-collar workers are cute when they think they matter; don’t be one of those people. Who’s gonna fix shit when it breaks? No matter how dope your Excel skillz are, it ain’t you. Mechanics FTW, baby. 

Put another way, it’s really unfortunate that these poor employees got shafted by their company. But there’s about zero chance the GMAT would use these employees’ grim situation as a justification to make an answer correct. If you see an answer like this, you can tell that it’s crap. Throw it.


Here’s the thing, folks: GMAT Critical Reasoning questions are extremely well-written. They are consistent within themselves. The Real World, thank dog, does not affect the reasoning behind them.

You want to know the boundaries of the argument? Look no farther than the Conclusion. Make sure that your answer fits within these boundaries. 

Be aware of when you’re trying to squeeze the Real World into your reasoning here–it’s easy to do! 

Remember that the GMAT’s view of the world is, perhaps naïvely, quite positive. It really thinks that business is a net benefit for society–as perhaps it ought to be, and one can hope that is precisely why you, my friend, are going to business school.

For this reason alone, Opposite choices often take more time to crack than other types of questions.

Any questions? Talk to GMAT Tutor London Rowan Hand right here:


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