Loaded Question: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Loaded Question Defined
  • 2:24 Examples of Loaded Questions
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

They might seem harmless, but loaded questions can be almost as treacherous as a loaded gun. Find out more about these rhetorical assassins in this lesson, where you'll also see a couple of them in action!

Loaded Question Defined

Even our best friends can be jerks sometimes. Let's say you get a bad grade in a class and your snarky friend says: 'Have you stopped cheating on tests?' Of course, you probably wouldn't say 'no,' which would imply you cheated on your most recent test. But if you were to simply answer 'yes,' you would be implying that you've most likely cheated on tests in the past. No matter what you say, it sounds like you've been cheating. Such interrogatives are known as complex or loaded questions, which are questions based on falsehoods or unfounded presumptions.

Loaded questions are a type of logical fallacy, a faulty course of reasoning. In the case of loaded questions, the interrogator's logic is flawed when he or she poses a question that is grounded in something that is speculative at best or patently untrue. Take, for instance: 'have you stopped cheating on tests?' The logical fallacy here is founded on the (probably) false assertion or assumption that you have been cheating on tests, most likely sometime in the recent past.

Questions like these are dangerous not only because they're based in falsehood but because they're also typically answerable only by 'yes' or 'no.' This presents a problem since these are also known as 'complex' questions because they commonly consist of multiple questions in one, thus their common Latin designation: plurium interrogationum, meaning 'from many questions.'

Looking again to the cheating question, maybe you never cheated on a test, so you want to say 'no,' but that simple answer isn't enough. You would have to say: 'no, I never cheated on any of my tests.' Say, however, you did answer 'yes.' You might then go on to explain that you've stopped cheating on tests, but you only did it once and it was a long time ago. In both cases, you had to add extra explanations.

As rhetorical devices, then, complex questions are tools that can be used to kill debates by baiting opponents into incriminating or otherwise unflattering positions. Similarly, political debaters and critics will pose loaded questions for the purpose of luring their targets into compromising scenarios. Even if the person refuses to answer the question (a common antidote) or offers explanation for the answer, the individual still runs the chance of losing credibility if not handled expertly.

Examples of Loaded Questions

Political arenas are always ripe territory for the prolific use of rhetorical devices, particularly complex questions. For instance, the 2011 Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library was full of these questions.

One especially loaded question asked by moderator Brian Williams involved the executions of 234 Texas inmates. Directed to Texas Senator Rick Perry, Williams asked: 'have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?' This poignant complex question threw Perry for a loop because it actually entails a number of different questions. These range from the moral validity of execution to Perry's own involvement with this part of the judiciary process, which can't be properly substantiated in this context.

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