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Loaded questions


Techniques > Questioning > Loaded questions

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Loaded questions are designed (deliberately or by accident) to do more than get straight answers. Typically they seek to change minds by coercive stealth rather than open inquiry.


Loaded questions often contain assumptions, whereby the question is directed in a way that a straight answer needs that the person answering accept that which the questioner is assuming.

Where did you hide the gun? [assumes that you hid the gun]

How often do you do that? [assumes that you do it at least sometimes]


A loaded question as used in an interrogation is a question that contains presuppositions such that when the respondent gives any direct answer to the question he concedes certain assumptions that are at issue and that are damaging to his interests or the interests of someone who actions he has witnessed. For example, the question, ‘‘Where did you hide the gun?’’, presupposes that the respondent had a gun. A complex question is one that combines several presuppositions, in effect, combining several questions in to one. The classic case of a question that is both complex and loaded is: ‘‘Have you stopped abusing your spouse?’’ No matter which of the two direct answers the respondent gives, he concedes engaging in spousal abuse at some time or other. A so-called leading question takes the respondent in a certain significant direction as a soon as gives a direct answer. Leading questions can be legitimate in an interrogation, but they can have subtle effects that the interrogator or others might not be aware of, and that can be highly misleading. Complex and loaded questions can be reasonable, provided they come in the right order of questioning in a dialogue sequence. For example, suppose that in an interrogation, the respondent just admitted that he had abused his spouse. Then asking the complex and loaded question ‘‘Have you stopped abusing your spouse?’’ could be quite appropriate. Fallacious questions tend to occur when there is an unawareness of the complex or loaded nature of a question, and misleading conclusions are drawn from the asking and answering of the question (Walton, 1995: 202–205). What is vital is to understand that every question tends to have a ‘‘spin’’ on it, determined by its presuppositions and by the language used to pose the question.

Walton, Douglas N., 1995. A Pragmatic Theory of Fallacy. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.


There is an empirical method of determining how heavily a question is loaded in virtue of the language it contains. The method has two steps. The first step is to ask the question in a statistical poll, and tabulate the results. The second step is to replace the term you think has an emotive spin on it with a descriptively equivalent but emotively neutral term, and then ask the revised question in a poll with a group of respondents selected in the same way as the first group. Schuman and Presser (1981) used this method extensively for determining response effects of question wording. An illustration of the technique is cited by Moore (1992: 343–344). A 1985 survey asked respondents whether too little money was being spent on welfare. Nineteen percent of respondents said ‘yes’. But then when a group of respondents selected by the same criteria were asked the same question with the word ‘welfare’ replaced by the descriptively equivalent phrase ‘assistance to the poor’, 63% said ‘yes’. The difference of 44 points is the so-called ‘‘response effect’’ of the wording in the question. Such a response effect can be used as an empirical means of judging to what extent a term used in question is loaded.

Moore, David W., 1992. The Super Pollsters. Four Walls Eight Windows, New York.



See also

Leading questions,

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