A loaded question is a trick question, which presupposes at least one unverified assumption that the person being questioned is likely to disagree with. For example, the question “have you stopped mistreating your pet?” is a loaded question, because it presupposes that you have been mistreating your pet.
This type of fallacious 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 pressure them to answer in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise.
Loaded questions are frequently used in various situations 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 problematic, and see how you can properly respond to them, as well as how you can avoid using them yourself.
Explanation of loaded questions
The issue with loaded questions is that they contain an implicit or explicit assumption that the person being questioned is likely to disagree with. Furthermore, loaded questions are often phrased in a way that pressures the person being questioned to reply in a way that confirms this problematic assumption, rather than in the way that they would normally prefer to reply.
To understand this concept better, consider the following example of a loaded question:
“Have you stopped mistreating your pet?”
This question is loaded due to its presupposition, which is the implicit background assumption that it contains, and namely the assumption that the person who is being questioned has been mistreating their pet. Accordingly, even though this statement is phrased as a question, which is meant to elicit information, it also implicitly provides information about the person who is being questioned.
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 they appear to confirm that they have mistreated their pet in the past, but have since stopped.
- If the respondent says “no”, then they appear to confirm that they have mistreated their pet in the past, and are still doing so in the present.
Essentially, even if the respondent has never engaged in such behavior, their intuition might cause them to reply with either “yes” or “no”, which would seemingly confirm the accusation against them (that they have been mistreating their pet).
These replies can be intuitive because they represent the type of answer that usually applies to this type of question, and because both replies can make sense if the respondent has never mistreated their pet in the first place. That is, someone might intuitively reply “yes” if they’re trying to convey the fact that they aren’t mistreating their pet, or “no” if they are trying to convey the fact that they have never mistreated their pet at all.
Note: loaded questions are sometimes referred to by other names, particularly when they’re viewed as a type of a logical fallacy. This includes, most notably, the loaded question fallacy, the complex question fallacy, the fallacy of many questions, the fallacy of presupposition, the interrogator’s fallacy, and plurium interrogationum.
Examples of loaded questions
Below are examples of loaded questions. They all presuppose something unverified, which the person being questioned might disagree with.
“Do you actually support this terrible politician?”
This loaded question presupposes the fact that the politician being discussed is terrible. Accordingly, if the respondent replies “yes”, because they do support that politician, then their answer will inadvertently suggest that they think that politician is terrible.
“Do you think that we should convict this criminal?”
This loaded 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 in fact a criminal.
“Are you one of those hateful people that doesn’t have any religious beliefs?”
This loaded question is framed so that if the respondent replies “yes”, because they don’t have any religious beliefs, then their answer will inadvertently suggest that they believe themself to be hateful.
“Have you accepted the fact that most scientific studies don’t support this theory?”
This loaded question presupposes the fact that most scientific studies don’t support the theory in question. If the respondent says “no”, because they believe that this is wrong, then their answer will inadvertently suggest that they agree with this presupposition, and that they simply refuse to accept it.
“Are you saying that you support the new law just to annoy me, or are you seriously stupid enough to believe that it’s a good idea?”
This loaded question is framed in a way that prompts the respondent to disagree with one of the two clauses that it contains, which inadvertently suggests that they agree with the other. Specifically, if the respondent says “no”, to show that they disagree with the idea that they support the law just because they are “stupid enough to believe in it”, then their answer implies that they support the law just to annoy the other person. The presupposition in this case is the fact that these are the only two reasons why they might be supporting the law.
“Are you naive enough to believe the mainstream media, or do you just not care about finding out the truth?”
This loaded question is similar to the previous one, since it is framed in a way that prompts the respondent to disagree with one of the two included clauses, which inadvertently suggests that they agree with the other one. Here again, the presupposition that makes this question loaded is the assumption that these are the only two reasons why a person might believe the mainstream media.
“Can you meet to discuss this tomorrow, or are you too busy slacking off?”
This loaded question also uses the double-clause technique we saw above. In this case, the loaded question is used to pressure the person being questioned into accepting a proposal, because if they simply reply “no” without expanding on their answer, then they will appear to inadvertently confirm the alternative explanation for their refusal, which is generally seen 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. For example, consider the following loaded question:
“When did you stop stealing from your partner?”
Similarly to the loaded questions that prompt a yes/no answer, this type of open-ended loaded question presupposes something that the respondent is likely to disagree with.
However, these loaded questions are less common, since it’s less intuitive to answer them in a way that incriminates the respondent. This is because the answers that these questions prompt are more open-ended, which makes it easier for the respondent to reject the problematic presupposition.
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 a way that pushes the respondent to agree.
“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.
Finally, note that although loaded questions appear in a variety of contexts, there are some situations where they are especially prevalent. For example, in gotcha journalism, loaded questions are frequently used by reporters, who interview people in a way that causes them to unintentionally make negative statements, that are damaging to their reputation or credibility.
Note: one of the most classic but crass examples of a loaded question is “have you stopped beating your wife?” or “when have you stopped beating your wife?”, which presupposes that the person being asked the question has been beating their wife.
How to respond to a loaded question
To respond to a loaded question in a way that negates it, you first need to recognize the fact that the question being asked is loaded. You can recognize this type of question, as we saw above, by noticing that the question presupposes something that is unreasonable to assume.
Once you recognize that you are being asked a loaded question, there are several ways you can respond:
- Reply in a way that rejects the presupposition. This involves either an explicit or an implicit rejection of the problematic presupposition, and your response will therefore be different than what the person asking the question is trying to get you to say. For example, if you’re asked “did you stop cheating on tests at schools?”, then instead of answering using a yes/no statement, you can reply by saying “I never cheated on any tests”.
- Point out the fallacious reasoning. To do this, you should explicitly point out the issue with the question being asked, by showing that it contains an inappropriate presupposition. Potentially, you can also use examples to illustrate the issues with this reasoning, for example by asking the other person a similar type of loaded question. You can follow up on this by also answering the question in a way that rejects the presupposition, as we saw above, or by asking the person who asked the question to justify their phrasing. For example, if you’re asked “when will you stop cheating on tests?” you can reply by saying “I’ve never cheated on any test, so why are you accusing me of this?”.
- Ignore the question or refuse to answer it. In some cases, your best course of action is to explicitly refuse to answer the loaded question, or to ignore it entirely. However, note that in some cases, refusing to answer a question or ignoring it could reflect badly on you, for example by making it appear as if you support the problematic presupposition. As such, it can sometimes be better to first point out the fallacious reasoning in the question, and why you’re not answering it.
Finally, when countering loaded questions, a useful concept to keep in mind is Hanlon’s razor, which suggests that you should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.
Specifically, in this case Hanlon’s razor means that people sometimes ask loaded questions unintentionally, without realizing that they’re doing so, or without understanding the issues with what they’re doing. This is important, since it can help you understand people’s behavior better, and since it means that it’s sometimes better to reply to loaded questions in a way that doesn’t directly accuse the other person of using fallacious reasoning intentionally.
Overall, to reply to loaded questions effectively, you should first recognize that the question being asked is loaded, and consider whether the person asking the question is aware of this or not. Then, you can either reply in a way that rejects the problematic presupposition, point out the fallacious reasoning involved, or refuse to answer the question.
Giving a mu answer
A concept that is often mentioned in relation to loaded questions is that of mu or mu answer.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the original concept of mu has Japanese and Chinese origins, and plays an important role in Zen Buddhism, where it refers to “A state of voidness, nothingness, or detachment which is thought to transcend the concepts of negative and positive”.
The concept of mu is sometimes used to respond to loaded questions, and especially yes/no loaded questions, by rejecting the validity of the questions themselves. For example, if someone is asked a loaded question such as “have you stopped mistreating your pet?”, they may reply by saying “mu”, which means that they reject the premises of the question, since they have never mistreated their pet in the first place.
How to avoid asking loaded questions
It’s possible that you’re using loaded questions without being aware that you’re doing so. This is problematic, both because of the inherent fallaciousness of these questions, and because using these questions can hinder communication efforts and damage your relationships with others. Accordingly, you generally want to make sure to avoid asking loaded questions.
To do this, you must first recognize questions that are loaded, before you ask them, which you can achieve by considering whether your question presupposes something that your respondent might disagree with.
If you recognize that the question you’re about to ask is loaded, you can then modify it, to avoid the problematic presupposition. Specifically, this involves breaking apart the question into a series of related 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:
“What made you stop watching TV all the time?”
You can first ask the following question, which confirms that your initial presupposition is true:
“Did you use to watch TV all the time?”
Then, if your respondent confirms this initial presupposition, you can move on to ask them about the second presupposition in the original question:
“Did you stop watching TV all the time?”
Finally, if the respondent confirms this second presupposition, you can move on to ask the main question that you are interested in:
“What made you stop watching TV all the time?”
Combining these questions together yields the following question:
“Did you use to watch TV all the time, and if so, then did you also stop watching watching TV all the time, and if so, then what made you stop watching TV all the time?
While this example doesn’t sound natural, and you generally wouldn’t use it directly in communication, it illustrates the underlying concept behind deconstructing your loaded questions to make them valid.
Overall, to avoid asking loaded questions, you should make sure to avoid assuming things in your question that the person being questioned might disagree with; if necessary, you can separate your original question into a series of questions, in order to confirm that the other person agrees with all of your assumptions. Doing this will help you avoid fallacious reasoning in your questions, and will improve your ability to communicate with others.
Loaded questions aren’t always fallacious
It’s important to note that loaded questions aren’t always considered fallacious. Rather, they are generally considered fallacious only if there is an issue with the presupposition that they contain. Accordingly, 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 likely 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 the person being questioned will clearly accept the presupposition, then the use of this question is generally not considered fallacious.
Overall, many questions that people use in everyday communication contain presuppositions that are seen as reasonable, and avoiding these presuppositions entirely is highly ineffective. As such, loaded questions aren’t generally seen as an issue, unless the presupposition that they contain is problematic in some way.
Other types of trick questions
In addition to loaded questions, there are other types of trick questions that people use.
For instance, suggestive questions (sometimes also referred to as leading questions), are questions that are phrased in a way that 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, is the following:
“Do you think that the evidence in this case is conclusive?”
In addition, there are forced-choice questions, which are questions that are phrased in a way that pushes the person being questioned to respond using only a limited set of 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 when another option is available.
An example of a forced-choice question is the following:
“Do you support the actions of your favorite politician: 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 support some of their favorite politician’s actions, but not others. Accordingly, a better-phrased version of this question would be:
“Do you support the actions of your favorite politician?”
“How do you feel about the actions of your favorite politician?”
However, note that similarly to loaded questions, these questions aren’t always fallacious.
For example, forced-choice questions can 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.
In addition, when these questions are employed in such a manner, it’s sometimes 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 large range of available options, which makes it more likely that they will be able to express themselves properly. This can involve, for instance, adding a ‘partially agree’ answer to a question that previously had only ‘agree’ and ‘disagree’ as options.
Summary and conclusions
- A loaded question is a trick question, which presupposes at least one unverified assumption that the person being questioned is likely to disagree with.
- For example, the question “have you stopped mistreating your pet?” is a loaded question, because it presupposes that you have been mistreating your pet.
- To reply to a loaded question, you should first recognize that the question being asked is loaded, and then either reject the problematic presupposition, point out the fallacious reasoning involved, or refuse to answer the question.
- Before responding to a loaded question, you should consider whether the person who asked it understands what they’re doing and why it’s a problem, since this can affect the way you choose to respond.
- To avoid asking loaded questions yourself, you should avoid assuming things in your questions that the person being questioned might disagree with; if necessary, you can separate your original question into a series of questions, in order to confirm that the other person agrees with all of your assumptions.