How Brain Chemistry Lowers Your GMAT

studyingPop musicians know it.  Great orators know it.  Psychologists have proven it.  And you’d better believe the GMAT testmaker knows it.

When your mind sees what it expects to see, it releases dopamine, a pleasure-filled chemical response basically saying “attaboy” and rewarding you for recognizing the pattern.  When you hear the opening bars of “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway Park or a singalong bar, you scientifically can’t help yourself from wanting to change “bum-bum-bum” between lyrics.  It’s why a full year later you can’t get “Call Me Maybe” out of your head – every time a song like that gets to the refrain and gives you the familiar melody and tagline you’ve come to expect, your body releases that pleasing chemical.  Human beings love repetition and familiarity.  It’s science.

So when a recent Veritas Prep tutoring student, a medical doctor looking to return to school for an EMBA, kept falling into the same GMAT traps over and over, he took the advice he was given – “if it seems too good to be true it’s probably too good to be true” – and put some science behind it:

“I fell victim to the dopamine response.”

The dopamine response has likely gotten you through plenty of high school and college exams.  We all know to look for the familiar – if one of the textbooks for your course was written by your professor, you know that those themes will play a large role in the final exam.  That’s similar human psychology – the professor is always going to favor her own theories on a topic.  And if your teacher repeats a certain phrase frequently, you look for that phrase as an answer choice or you include it multiple times in your essay.  The familiar works….to a point.

But on the GMAT that dopamine response is often a trap.  Why?  Because the dopamine response is often a trap in business.  Entrepreneurs don’t change the world by doing the obvious, and groupthink often rushes to judgment without considering extremely important pitfalls.  Business requires a devil’s advocate to ask about the opportunity cost of a project or the impact of currency fluctuation.  And so the GMAT punishes you for falling victim to the dopamine response, and rewards you for taking a moment to think critically and ensure you’re not rushing to judgment.  Consider this Data Sufficiency example:

What is the perimeter of isosceles triangle LMN?

(1) Side LM has a length of 4

(2) Side MN has a length of 4

The dopamine response is powerful on this one – you’ve studied geometry and one of the most important flashcards in your deck is the one that shows the side ratios for an isosceles right triangle (a 45-45-90 triangle): x, x, x.  So when you see two elements of that ratio, your mind can’t wait to fill in the third…it’s like listening to “Sweet Caroline” – bum, bum bum…the other side is 4 and good times never seemed so good (so good, so good, so good!).  And the world agrees with you – in the Veritas Prep Question Bank, nearly 50% of users select C (both statements together are sufficient) and approximately 20% select A, B, or D (thinking that just getting one of the sides will be enough to plug into that isosceles right triangle ratio and determine the perimeter).

But wait: does the question ever say that this is a right triangle?  It only says “isosceles” – you don’t know if the sides are 4, 4, and 4 or if they’re 4, 4 and 4.  All you know is that two sides must match, but you don’t know which ones.  But our minds are conditioned, via dopamine, to fill in that blank and assume this is a right triangle. It’s what’s on our flash cards and it allows us to pick up on that familiar melody and pat ourselves on the back for having done our homework, memorized the formula, and picked up our A on the test.

And this is just one example – as the GMAT is a reasoning test more so than a content test, an entrance exam that seeks to measure potential more so than an exit exam that seeks to measure proficiency, it preys upon your tendency to succumb to the dopamine response.  And that dopamine response is strong – by far the majority of tests and quizzes you’ve taken in your life have been content-based exit exams, so the dopamine you get for saying “I remember that!” is a natural part of how you study and perform academically.

The key to success on the GMAT is recognizing that dopamine will interfere with true reasoning.  It’s to stay disciplined even when you think you’ve quickly solved a problem, and to double check that you haven’t made any assumptions or overlooked any clues in the problem.  It’s to pay attention to the mistakes you make on practice tests and homework sets, and to drill into yourself a counter-response to the dopamine response – remember those mistakes you make and force yourself to be patient and disciplined and not rush to judgment.

The dopamine response you really want is that feeling of euphoria that comes when the final screen shows you your freakishly high score, or really that joy that comes from opening “the big envelope” from your dream school.  It’s those smaller dopamine responses that can get in the way, so don’t let them.  Choose discipline over dopamine and reasoning over fill in the blank.  Neil Diamond and Carly Rae Jepsen will understand.

Brian Galvin will run the free seminar

Brian Galvin will run the free seminar

Brian Galvin is Director of Academic Programs at Veritas Prep, a GMAT prep and graduate school admissions consulting provider. This is his second column for Poets& His contrarian views appear monthly.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.