You know the story all too well: after happily eliminating three of the five answer choices, you're stuck between the last two. One of them is a winner, the other is a loser. The problem is, you can't decide which is which, because the loser is cleverly disguised as a... winner. (I know, it's terrible!) You can call Donald Trump, of course, who seems to face such dilemmas on a daily basis, and has surely become the worldwide expert in winner/loser differentiation strategies.
On the off-chance you can't get a hold of the Donald, here's what you should do:
Getting stuck between two answer choices is a common predicament that occurs most frequently in the Logical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension sections of the LSAT. If you find yourself in a tight spot, make no mistake about it: you were meant to! More often than not, one of the incorrect answer choices (particularly in LR and RC) is specifically designed to be more attractive than any of the other three incorrect answer choices, and you are tested on your ability to tell them apart. So, how do you do that?
As discussed in our LSAT courses and LSAT prep publications, the optimal means of differentiation between a decoy (the loser) and the correct answer choice (the winner) will vary by question type. For instance:
- In Assumption questions, apply the Assumption Negation Technique and examine which of the two attractive answer choices, when negated, weakens the conclusion of the argument the most. It also helps to know what sort of answers are typically incorrect in Assumption questions. More often than not, such answer choices contain statements that either strengthen the argument, or else provide a sufficient reason to justify the conclusion, but do not represent an assumption upon which the conclusion depends.
- In questions whose stimuli contain Conditional Reasoning, a great approach would be to diagram the argument contained in the stimulus, and then use that diagram to prove an inferential statement (in Must Be True or Parallel questions), identify the missing conditional link (in Justify questions), or determine the logical flaw (in Flaw and Parallel Flaw questions). The strongest "decoys" in such questions often contain Mistaken Reversals or Negations, whose elimination almost invariably requires a thorough understanding of the conditional reasoning contained in the stimulus.
- In Point at Issue questions, apply the Agree/Disagree test and determine which answer choice would pass that test, where one of the speakers would agree with that answer choice, and the other speaker would disagree with it. Decoy answers typically contain statements with which only one of the speakers would agree or disagree; the other speaker's opinion would be impossible to determine from the information presented in the stimulus.
For most LR question types, there is a question type-specific test designed specifically to help you differentiate between the correct and the incorrect answer choices. So, you may wonder - is this the best you can do here?
Not really. The very fact that you found an incorrect answer choice attractive is already problematic: it means you've been caught in a trap, and you need to find a way out of it. This is triage, not prevention. Sure, you can use the aforementioned tests to get yourself out of that predicament, but why did you get trapped in there in the first place? Because you did not prephrase the answer on your own!
Donald Trump knows a loser when he sees one. And so should you.
The absolute best thing you can do to avoid getting stuck between two answer choices is to prephrase the nature of the correct answer choice before you look at the answers. In the most basic terms, this approach calls for a prediction about what the right answer is likely (or even certain) to include. Pausing to create a prephrase can change your entire approach to the question: it allows you to quickly scan the choices looking for what you know will be part of the right answer. During this analysis, incorrect answer choices that go off in different directions can often be glanced over with little or no consideration. If, on the other hand, you don’t take the time to prephrase, every wrong answer choice starts to require a bit more consideration, and the ones that are particularly attractive are far more likely to lead you off the path. Before you know it, you're stuck between two answers, unable to decide.
Granted, the value of this approach is tougher to see in the abstract than it is to recognize in retrospect. To make it work, you need to practice it to the point where it becomes an automatic part of your response, i.e. an almost subconscious reaction to the question stem. Here's a cool technique: As you do your homework (not Practice Tests!) in Logical Reasoning or Reading Comprehension, physically cover the answer choices to each question with a piece of paper or a post-it note. Over time, this will help you develop the habit of mentally pausing to answer the question on your own, before moving on to the answer choices. And even if none of the answer choices represents an exact match for your prephrase, having speculated on what the right answer choice would have to say (or do) is already incredibly helpful! Use that prephrase as a filter - or a lens, if you will - to separate the winners from the losers.
If you know what a winner looks like ahead of time, you will never, ever find a loser to be even remotely attractive!
Image credit: Trump's Birdnest courtesy of Mark Rain.