A loaded question is a trick question, which presupposes an unverified assumption that the person being questioned is likely to disagree with. For example, the question “why are you so lazy?” is a loaded question, because it presupposes that the person being questioned is lazy.
This type of question puts the person who is being questioned in a disadvantageous and defensive position, since the assumption in the question could reflect badly on them or make them feel forced them to pick an answer which they would not pick otherwise.
Loaded questions are frequently used in arguments and debates for rhetorical purposes, so it’s important to understand them. As such, in the following article you will learn more about loaded questions, understand why they are fallacious, and see how you can properly respond to them, as well as how you can avoid using them yourself.
An explanation of loaded questions
In essence, the issue with loaded questions is that they contain a trap, which is used in order to attack the person who is being asked the question, and which compromises their ability to reply in the way that they would normally prefer. To understand how this works, consider the following classic (but crass) example of a loaded question:
“Have you stopped beating your wife?”
This question is considered to be a loaded question due to its presupposition, which is the implicit background assumption that this question contains, and specifically the assumption that the person who is being questioned has been beating his wife.
Thus, even though this sentence is phrased as a question, it also contains an implicit statement about the person being asked the question.
In this case, the loaded question pushes the respondent to give a yes/no answer. However, regardless of which of these options the respondent chooses, they will appear to agree with the question’s underlying presupposition:
- If the respondent says “yes”, then he appears to confirm that he has beaten his wife in the past, but has since stopped.
- If the respondent says “no”, then he appears to confirm that he has beaten his wife in the past, and is still doing so in the present.
Essentially, even if the respondent has never engaged in such behavior, his intuition will often cause him to reply either “yes” or “no”, which appears to implicate him as a wife-beater.
Both these replies can be intuitive, because this is the type of answer that usually applies to this type of question, and because both answers can make sense if he never beat his wife in the first place.
That is, someone might intuitively reply “yes” if he’s trying to convey the fact that he is not beating his wife, or “no” if he is trying to convey the fact that he has never beaten her in the first place.
As such, loaded questions represent a type of an informal logical fallacy, since there is an issue with the premise of such questions, and specifically with the information that they presuppose. This information manifests in the form of an implicit assumption, which is integrated into question in a way that prompts the person being questioned to reply in a way that doesn’t allow them to contradict that assumption.
This rhetoric technique plays a role in various scenarios, both in the personal as well as in the political landscape. For example, in gotcha journalism, loaded questions are frequently used by reporters in order to interview people in a way that causes them to unintentionally make negative statements, that are damaging to their reputation or credibility.
Note: the use of loaded questions is referred to by various names, including the loaded question fallacy, the complex question fallacy, the fallacy of many questions, the fallacy of presupposition, and plurium interrogationum.
Examples of loaded questions
Below are various examples of different types of loaded questions, all of which presuppose something that the respondent might disagree with.
“Do you actually support that lazy president of ours?”
This question presupposes the fact that the president is lazy. Accordingly, if the respondent supports the president and replies “yes”, then their answer will inadvertently suggest that they think the president is lazy.
“Do you think that we should convict this criminal?”
This question presupposes the fact that the person being discussed is a criminal. Accordingly, if the respondent believes that that person is innocent and replies “no” in order to show that they don’t think a conviction is necessary, then their answer will inadvertently suggest that they believe that person is a criminal.
“Are you one of those hateful people that doesn’t believe in creationism?”
This question is framed so that if the respondent doesn’t believe in creationism and replies “yes” in order to show that, then their answer will inadvertently suggest that they believe themself to be hateful.
“Have you accepted the fact that most environmental studies don’t support the idea of human-induced climate change?”
This question presupposes the fact that most environmental studies don’t support climate change. If the respondent says “no”, because they know that this is wrong, then their answer inadvertently suggests that they agree with this presupposition, meaning that they believe that most studies don’t support climate change.
“Are you saying that you support the new bill just to annoy me, or are you seriously stupid enough to believe in it?”
This question is framed in a way that prompts the respondent to disagree with one of the two clauses in the statement (most commonly the second one), which inadvertently suggests that they agree with the other clause.
In this case, if the respondent says “no” in order to show that they disagree with the idea that they support the bill because they are “stupid enough to believe in it”, then their answer implies that they support the bill just to annoy the other person.
“Are you naive enough to believe the mainstream media, or do you just not care about finding out the truth?”
This question is similar to the previous one, since it is framed in a way that prompts the respondent to disagree with one clause in particular, which leads to the implicit suggestion that they agree with the other clause, despite the fact that an agreement with either clause reflects badly on them.
“Can you meet to discuss this tomorrow, or are you too busy slacking off?”
This question also uses the double-clause technique we saw above. In this case, the loaded question is used in order to pressure the other person into accepting a certain proposal, because if they simply say “no” without expanding on their answer, then they appear to inadvertently confirm the alternative explanation for their refusal, which is generally framed as negative.
Note that the examples that we saw so far mostly prompt the respondent to give a yes/no answer. However, loaded questions don’t necessarily have to fit this format. Consider the following example:
“When did you stop stealing from your partner?”
Similarly to the loaded questions which prompt a yes/no answer, this type of question presupposes something that the respondent might disagree with (in this case, the fact that he stole from his partner).
However, such loaded questions are less common, because it’s less intuitive to answer them in a way that incriminates you, since the answers that they prompt are more open-ended.
Another example of such an open-ended loaded question is the following:
“Why is X so much better than Y?”
This question presupposes the fact that X is better than Y, in an implicit manner which makes it difficult for the respondent to disagree with.
“Why do you hate X?”
This open-ended question presupposes the fact that the person being asked the question hates X. As in the previous examples, while the respondent is technically free to reject this premise, the format of the question prompts them to answer it in a way that confirms it, even if this isn’t what they would normally choose to do.
How to respond to a loaded question
In order to reply to a loaded question in a way that negates it, you first need to recognize the fact that a loaded question is being asked. You can recognize this type of question, as we saw above, by noticing that the question presupposes something that you disagree with, and which usually has a negative implication for you, or which limits your range of possible answers.
Once you recognize that you are being asked a loaded question, there are several options that you can choose from when it comes to picking your response:
- Reply in a way that rejects the presupposition. To do this, answer the question in a way that is different from what your questioner is expecting, so that you can explicitly reject the implicit assumption that you disagree with. For example, if you’re asked “did you stop cheating on all of your tests?”, then instead of answering using a yes/no statement, reply by saying “I have never cheated on any of my tests”.
- Point out the fallacious reasoning. To do this, you should explicitly point out the issue with the question that is being asked, by showing that it contains an inappropriate presupposition, and is therefore a loaded question. You can follow up on this by also answering in a way that rejects the presupposition, as we saw above, or by asking the other person to justify the way that they phrased their question. For example, if you’re asked “when will you stop cheating your way through your degree?” you can reply by saying “it’s wrong of you to assume that I’m cheating my way through my degree, since I never cheated on any of my exams. Why are you accusing me of doing this in the first place?”.
- Refuse to answer the question or simply ignore it. In some cases, you might decide that the best course of action is to either explicitly refuse to answer the loaded question, or to ignore it and continue the discussion without acknowledging it. However, note that in general, refusing to answer the question will work best if you point out the fallacious reasoning first. Otherwise, you will likely be accused of dodging the question.
When countering loaded questions, it’s important to remember that people don’t always use this type of question on purpose, and that people sometimes ask loaded questions without realizing that they are doing so. This is important to take into account, since replying in a way that doesn’t accuse the other person of asking a loaded question intentionally can often lead to a more productive dialogue, especially if their fallacious reasoning was indeed unintentional.
Note: a concept that is often mentioned in relation to loaded questions is that of mu or mu answer. This term, which has Japanese and Chinese origins, and which plays an important role in Zen Buddhism, is sometimes used by English speakers to reject loaded questions by suggesting that their premises are flawed, so they should be un-asked or rephrased.
How to avoid using loaded questions yourself
It’s possible that you’re using loaded questions without being aware that you are doing it.
In order to solve this issue, the first thing that you need to do is recognize the fact that you’re about to ask someone a loaded question. You can do by following the criteria that we saw earlier, and checking whether a question that you are about to ask presupposes something that your respondent might not agree with.
Once you successfully recognize that you are about to ask a loaded question, you can modify your question in order to avoid using problematic phrasing.
Specifically, in order to solve the issues associated with loaded questions, you need to break them apart into a series of questions, with the goal of first confirming that your presupposition is true, before moving on to ask the main question that you are seeking the answer to.
For example, instead of asking the following loaded question:
“Why did you stop watching a lot of TV shows?”
You can first ask the following question, which confirms that your initial presupposition is true:
“Did you use to watch a lot of TV shows?”
Then, if the respondent confirms this initial presupposition, you can move on to confirm the second presupposition in the question:
“Did you stop watching a lot of TV shows?”
Finally, if the respondent confirms this second presupposition, you can move on to ask the main question that you are interested in:
“Why did you stop watching a lot of TV shows?”
Combining these questions together yields the following deconstructed question:
“Did you use to watch a lot of TV shows, and if so, then did you also stop watching a lot of TV shows, and if so, then why did you stop watching a lot of TV shows?”
While this example doesn’t necessarily sound very natural, it illustrates the underlying concept behind deconstructing your loaded questions in order to make them valid.
In practice, the main thing to remember is to not ask questions that contain implicit assumptions that the person you are talking to might disagree with.
Instead, you should separate such questions into a series of questions, in order to ensure that the other person agrees with your assumption in the first place. This will help you avoid fallacious reasoning in your questions, and will improve your communication with others.
Loaded questions aren’t always fallacious
It’s important to point out the fact that loaded questions aren’t inherently fallacious. Rather, they are fallacious only if there is some issue with the presupposition that they contain.
This is because if the presupposition that a question contains is valid, meaning that all the people involved in the discussion agree with it, then the question is generally not considered fallacious. For example, consider the following question:
“What movie do you want to watch tonight?”
This is a loaded question, in the sense that it presupposes that the person being asked the question wants to watch a movie with the person who is asking the question.
If the respondent isn’t interested in watching a movie, then the use of this question is considered fallacious, since it assumes that they do, and pressures them into replying in a way that confirms this assumption.
However, in a situation where both people accept the presupposition, meaning that they are both interested in watching a movie, then the use of this question is generally not considered fallacious, but is rather viewed as a principle of effective communication.
Other types of trick questions
In addition to loaded questions, there are other types of potentially fallacious questions that people frequently used.
For instance, suggestive questions (sometimes also referred to as leading questions), are questions that are phrased in a way which suggests that a certain answer should be given in response.
An example of a suggestive question is the following:
“Don’t you agree that the evidence in this case is quite conclusive?”
This phrasing prompts the other person to respond in a confirmatory manner, even if they wouldn’t necessarily choose to respond this way otherwise. Conversely, a more neutral phrasing of this question, which won’t pressure the respondent as much, is the following:
“Do you think that the evidence in this case is conclusive?”
Another common type of questions that are often used in a fallacious manner are forced-choice questions, which are questions that are phrased in such a way that forces the person being questioned to respond only using a limited set of available options. For example, such questions often force a yes/no response when a more elaborate reply is needed, or force a choice between two options in a false dichotomy, where another option is available.
An example of a forced-choice question is the following:
“Do you agree with the future goals of your political party: yes or no?”
In this example, the question pushes the respondent to give an absolute yes/no answer, despite the fact that their preferred response might be that they agree with some of their party’ future goals, and disagree with others. Accordingly, a better-phrased version of this question would be:
“How do you feel about the future goals of your political party?”
However, note that, similarly to loaded questions, these types of questions aren’t always fallacious.
For example, forced-choice questions might sometimes be employed in a reasonable manner during political discussions, in cases where the respondents are consistently using red herrings and equivocation in an attempt to avoid giving a direct answer. Similarly, such questions might sometimes be used in large-scale questionnaires, where it’s not viable to give people the option to answer in an open-ended manner.
Nevertheless, when these questions are employed in such manner, it’s possible to reduce the issues that are associated with them. For example, when it comes to forced-choice survey questions, it’s possible to give people a larger range of available options, which allow them to express themselves more accurately (e.g. adding a ‘partially agree’ option in addition to ‘agree’ and ‘disagree’).
Summary and conclusions
- A loaded question is a trick question, which presupposes an unverified assumption that the person being questioned is likely to disagree with.
- For example, the question “have you stopped hitting your dog” is loaded, because it presupposes the fact that you have been hitting your dog. This kind of question prompts a yes/no answer, with the problem being that both answers appear to implicitly confirm the fact that you have been hitting your dog, even if your intention is to convey the fact that you have never done that.
- When it comes to countering a loaded question, you should respond in a way which explicitly rejects the implicit presupposition that you disagree with. You can also point out the fallacious reasoning, in order to highlight the issue with the question being asked.
- You can choose to refuse to answer a loaded question, or to ignore it entirely, which might be the preferable option in some cases. However, if you do this, it is generally preferable to point out the issue with the question first, in order to avoid looking like you are dodging the question for some other reason.
- You should pay attention to the questions that you ask others, in order to ensure that you are not asking any loaded questions yourself. If you are about to ask a loaded question, you should instead deconstruct it into a series of questions, so that you can first confirm any presuppositions that you might have, before moving on to ask the main question that you are interested in.