It is widely assumed that people need to engage in intellectual activities

Question

It is widely assumed that people need to engage in intellectual activities such as solving crossword puzzles or mathematics problems in order to maintain mental sharpness as they age. In fact, however, simply talking to other people-that is, participating in social interaction, which engages many mental and perceptual skills-suffices. Evidence to this effect comes from a study showing that the more social contact people report, the better their mental skills.

Option A
Option B
Option C
Option D
Option E

(This question is from Official Guide. Therefore, because of copyrights, the complete question cannot be copied here. The question can be accessed at GMAT Club)

Solution

Understand the Passage

It is widely assumed that people need to engage in intellectual activities such as solving crossword puzzles or mathematics problems in order to maintain mental sharpness as they age. 

This sentence starts with "It is widely assumed". When I read this, I know that the author will very likely contradict this part. 

Think about it.

Generally, when you talk about the assumptions others make, you are likely going to contradict them.

The assumption is that people NEED to engage in intellectual activities to maintain mental sharpness as they age. (Please note that the pink colored part just provides info about the intellectual activities. So, while trying to understand the complete statement, you may ignore it.)

The keyword here is "Need".  When you say "X is needed for Y", you mean that Y CANNOT happen without X. In other words, X is necessary for Y.

So, the assumption is that one cannot maintain mental sharpness as one ages without engaging in intellectual activities.

In fact, however, simply talking to other people - that is, participating in social interaction, which engages many mental and perceptual skills-suffices

This statement starts with "however", which indicates a change in direction. We can expect something contrary to the point made in the first statement. 

The statement says that simply talking to other people suffices. (Again while understanding the complete statement, I ignore the pink part providing additional info about "simply talking to other people".)

Suffices for what?

We need to understand this from the given context. In the first statement, the author talked about a general assumption that X is needed for Y. This statement starts with "however" and says that Z suffices. It means that Z suffices for Y i.e. simply talking to other people is sufficient to maintain mental sharpness. 

Thus, this statement completely contradicts the previous statement. This statement means that "engaging in intellectual activities" is not necessary for maintaining mental sharpness.

Well, this contradiction is what I expected when I read "widely assumed". So, everything seems to be fitting in till now.

Evidence to this effect comes from a study showing that the more social contact people report, the better their mental skills.

This statement provides evidence for the preceding statement. The evidence is the result of a study. The study shows that more social contact people report, the better their mental skills.

We can see that the Second Statement is the Conclusion supported by the Third Statement. 

Predict an Answer

Conclusion: Simply taking to other people is sufficient to maintain mental sharpness as one ages.

How is it supported?

A study showed that more the social interaction people report, the better their mental skills.

One of the most important parts in solving argument based questions is understanding HOW the premises support the conclusion.

In this case, the study showed two things happening together: more social contact and better mental skills. The argument concluded that social contact is sufficient for mental skills.

The argument thus assumed that in the study, more social contact led to better mental skills.

Why is this the assumption?

Because if we do not assume that social contact was the cause of better mental skills in the study, then how can we make the conclusion on the basis of the study?

If you pay attention to the assumption, it is a causal statement. X caused Y. or X led to Y.

In a way, the reasoning in the given argument is a standard causal reasoning in a lot of GMAT and real life arguments. We see two things happening together, and we say one is the cause of the other. For example: a lady is beautiful and lands a plum job. Some people may conclude that her beauty led to her job. But it may be her intelligence that led to the job. Are you sure that she is not more intelligent than others?

Such a causal conclusion or assumption can be broken down in a number of ways. For example: If the conclusion/assumption is that X led to Y (on the basis of the observation X and Y are happening together), then it can be broken down if we say:

  1. Y led to X
  2. Z led to X and Y
  3. Y happened before X.

In each of the above ways, we allow our observation to stand as is and still break down the causality "X led to Y". 

The given causality can be broken in each of these ways:

  1. People with better mental skills are more likely to be confident and thus have more social contact than others. (Mental skills are leading to more social contact)
  2. People from affluent background are more socially active than others and have better resources available for building their mental skills. (Affluence is leading to both social contact and mental skills)
  3. I'm not able to think how I can say that the mental skills existed before the social skills. So, if you have any idea on how I can construct this situation without offending common sense, please share your thoughts in the comments 🙂

Frankly, the argument is not just assuming this causality but stretching it even further by saying that simply taking SUFFICES. How can we say that it was sufficient? Probably, there were other factors at play that we are not considering.

So, by challenging the causality or by challenging this "sufficiency" part, we can weaken the argument.

Option Analysis

(A) Incorrect. This option says that people are advised to exercise their mental skills to maintain them. But it doesn't talk about how? Are they advised to maintain their mental skills by speaking to other people or by engaging in intellectual activities? The option doesn't talk about it. Thus, this option neither strengthens nor weakens the conclusion.

Now, the next logical question is "what if the option talked about a specific way to build mental skills?". What if the option were:

"As people grow older, they are often advised to keep exercising their mental capacities by engaging in intellectual activities in order to maintain or improve the mental capacities."

Would this weaken the argument?

The answer is No. The advice could be wrong. Besides, the argument already states that intellectual activities are widely believed to be necessary for maintaining mental sharpness. So, it isn't surprising to expect that people would be advising such activities. Thus, the argument is not weakened even by this modifies option.

(B) Correct. This option talks about a factor that has a negative impact on both the mental sharpness and the social contact. Thus, a person with this factor will have less social contact and less mental sharpness than a person who doesn't have this factor.

Right?

Thus, this option indicates that it is not that more social skills are leading to more mental sharpness or less social skills are leading to less mental sharpness; rather, it is the factor that is affecting both the social skills and the mental sharpness. 

This option weakens the argument by bringing in a Z-factor (2nd way of breaking down a causal argument as mentioned above).

(C) Incorrect. This option says that many people are skilled both in social interactions and in solving mathematical problems.

Good to know? But is one the cause of the other? 

The option doesn't say anything about that. It just says both exist simultaneously in some people.

Besides, we are not concerned about the social skills. We are concerned about social contact i.e. the number of hours you spend talking to other people, not how skilled you are while talking to them. Right?

(D) Incorrect. This option says that the study did not rely on primary data but on secondary data. 

Some people take it to be a weakener. They think that data from other sources may not be reliable. But the point is that it may also be equally or even more reliable than primary data. For example: if I use data from WHO in my study, is my study in any way less reliable than a study in which the researchers themselves are collecting data?

No. Just because it is secondary data doesn't mean that it is not reliable. That is an incorrect logic.

(E) Incorrect. This option is a very attractive choice for a lot of people. To understand it, let's look at its opposite:

The tasks evaluating mental sharpness for which data were compiled by the study were more akin to conversation than to mathematical problems.

(I've swapped the positions of "conversation" and "mathematical problems". By doing so, I've negated the original option)

Now, this statement means that we evaluated the mental sharpness in the study by giving "conversation" tasks rather than mathematical problems. Now, if we did so, we'd naturally expect people with more social contact to perform better on such tasks and thus show more mental sharpness. Right?

Thus, this situation will cast a doubt on the conclusion by indicating that it is not that social skills are leading to mental sharpness but that we are measuring mental sharpness in a biased way that we are seeing the given trend in the study.

So, we see that actually the negation of this option will weaken the conclusion. Thus, the actual option should strengthen the conclusion since it is negating a weakener. Right?

If you have any doubts, please feel free to ask in the comments section 🙂

About Chiranjeev Singh

An Alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad and with scores of 780 (2017) and 770 (2013) on GMAT and 99.98%ile on CAT, Chiranjeev is one of the most qualified GMAT tutors in India. Chiranjeev has earlier served as Director of Curriculum at e-GMAT. Chiranjeev has been helping students ace GMAT since 2012. He follows a concept-based methodology to teaching GMAT and is very committed to student success. You may contact him for any private GMAT tutoring needs at CJ@GMATwithCJ.com. He conducts online sessions for students across the world.

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