Loaded question, sometimes called a “complex question”, is a type of logical fallacy – an error in reasoning or a trick of thought used as a debate tactic.
This type of question is an attempt to limit the possible answers to only “yes” or “no”, and choosing either response would end up hurting the respondent’s credibility or reputation. As such, loaded questions are frequently used as a rhetorical tool in various contexts, such as journalism and politics.
In this article, we’ll explain how this fallacy works and examine a variety of examples. But first, here are a few quick facts:
What is a loaded question?
It occurs when someone asks a question containing an unjustified (and often offensive) presupposition.
What is an example of a loaded question?
An example would be: “So, have you always had a gambling problem?”
What is the difference between a leading question and a loaded question?
A leading question is one that suggests the answer desired by the speaker, while a loaded question includes an implicit assumption about the respondent.
The loaded question fallacy is a question containing an implicit assumption – that is unverified or controversial – putting the person being questioned in a defensive and unfavorable position.
It’s a type of trick question: it is designed to imply something that the interrogee probably disagrees with and make the listeners into believing that the implication is true. Moreover, it is typically made in a way that protects the person doing the questioning. As Bo Bennet explained in his Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies:
A question that has a presupposition built in, which implies something but protects the one asking the question from accusations of false claims.
Furthermore, it’s also known as a “complex question” (closely related to a loaded question), “false question”, and “fallacy of presupposition”.
It is important to keep in mind that not every assuming question is loaded. This logical fallacy occurs only if the implication being made is not a verified and accepted fact.
For instance, if the respondent in the first example below is known to be an abuser, then the question wouldn’t be fallacious.
👉 Example 1
A classic example of a loaded question is:
- “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
This question implicitly assumes that the respondent has been abusing his wife in the past, and whether he was to answer “yes” or “no”, he would appear to admit that the implication is true: A “yes” would mean that he has, in fact, been beating his wife in the past, however not anymore, and a “no” would mean that he has and still is beating his wife.
Note that a good response and a way out of such a question would be to directly address the implication and refute it: “I have never beaten my wife”.
👩🔬 Example 2
Another example would be:
- “So you are one of those science-hating creationists?”
Here, the question assumes that the respondent must hate science if they believe in creationism.
This can also be seen as a leading question because it attempts to force them to agree with the questioner’s views; it not-so-subtly suggests that denying the question would be the “correct” answer; replying “yes” would mean that he or she agrees to hate science.
As such, it’s a manipulative attempt by the questioner to limit the possible replies to only those that would serve their agenda.
🧒 Example in Real-Life
Madeleine Albright, who was U.S Ambassador to the U.N, was asked a loaded question and fell into the trap on 60 minutes (in 1996) regarding the effects of UN sanctions against Iraq:
Lesley Stahl: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
Madeleine Albright: “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”
👉 Other Examples
- “Why do you hate religious people?”
- ‘‘Where did you hide the gun?’’
- “So, have you always had a gambling problem?”
- “Why are you so lazy?”
- “Have you always been an alcoholic?”