Towards the end of any LSAT course, a frequently asked question is how to move beyond a performance plateau. Improving your prephrase process is one way to overcome your inertia. A related and equally important approach is to improve your critical reading skills. Unfortunately, many people miss valuable points on the test because they assume they’re seeing what’s important. However, due to issues of selective attention, they’re missing information critical to a useful prephrase.
Selective attention describes the situation in which there are too many stimuli for you to effectively process all of them, and so some fall by the wayside. I’ve written about this idea previously regarding the Reading Comprehension section, and it’s an equally prevalent concern in Logical Reasoning.
An experiment concerning selective attention conducted by Chabris and Simons involved, of all things, a person in gorilla suit walking through two groups of people passing around basketballs. One group of three people wore white shirts and the other group wore black shirts. The viewers were tasked with counting how many times the group in white passed the ball. Reportedly, approximately half of the viewers were so focused on counting the passes that they didn’t remember seeing the gorilla!
Another experiment by the same researchers focused on what’s known as change blindness, when an observer fails to notice a change in what they’re observing. A more extensive and perhaps more entertaining version of the same experiment was conducted by an ABC television program called Would You Fall For That?
So, what does all this have to do with getting past your score plateau? When people are focused on answering Logical Reasoning questions within a short time period, they tend to paraphrase the gist of the stimulus. But they aren’t as effective at carrying the important information into a summary as they might think.
In settling for a quick paraphrase, people fail to notice the modifier words, those limiting adjectives and adverbs that provide context and nuance. The more difficult questions often hinge on accounting for this context when deciding between the correct answer and an attractive distractor. So, like the invisible gorilla, our selective attention can prevent us from seeing words like “most”, “only”, or “sometimes”, words that can create the difference between the right choice and the wrong one.
LSAC also exploits change blindess to trick the unwary. A good example of a crafty change-up is Section III, Question 24 of the June 2000 LSAT, Prept Test 31. In this question, the applicance dealer concludes that consumers have no reason to object to the practice of introducing new applicance models without changing the appliance names, because the modifications are invariably improvements that benefit the buyer.
Note that the appliance dealer’s argument switches between “consumers” and “the buyer,” a change that most fail to notice. But the distinction is important to a solid prephrase for the correct answer. In the context of this question, a “consumer” is a person contemplating the purchase of an appliance, while a “buyer” is a person who actually purchased a specific applicance. These are distinct groups of people treated by the argument as if they were the same. A takeaway from this question is that if you think the stimulus is using two different words to express the same thing, make sure the words are truly synonymous and not another case of the test exploiting change bias.
I can hear a chorus of objections regarding the time it must take to take greater notice of this detailed language. But just because it’s important to focus on the detail doesn’t mean you should let yourself get bogged down in it. Certainly, there is a finite amount of time to prephrase each question if you expect to answer them all within the prescribed time. However, knowing to be vigilent about issues of selective attention and change bias can help you focus on the logically important details more quickly, just like you can’t help but notice the gorilla once you’re looking for it.
One concrete step toward becoming more vigilant when you read through the stimulus is to take one newpaper or magazine article a day, preferrably an editorial, and mark all the adjectives and averbs. Note the logical implication of removing those words and consider how you might come accross that kind of language on the test. The repeated process of identifying and analyzing the modifier words will help improve your Logical Reasoning prephrases, which will speed you up and improve our accuracy. If you realize those two benefits, you’ll get past your performance plateau.
Good luck in your studies!
Photo: “Dead End” courtesy of Rachaelvoorhees.