In the 1995 interview, late comedienne Caroline Aherne playing her character Mrs Merton, asked Debbie McGee, the wife of the famous magician Paul Daniels:
“So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”
This was voted as the best comedy put down in British TV history in one poll.
This is perhaps the most extreme example of a loaded question which provides the implied real answer in the question. The question has several implicit presumptions (in no way my opinion)- 1) Paul Daniels had little discernible attractive feature other than being rich. 2) That Debbie McGee was not rich before she met Paul Daniel’s 3) Debbie McGee is considered to be more attractive than Paul Daniel’s when not taking financial means into consideration. 4) Debbie McGee values wealth when considering a partner. There are lot of presumptions here and the barbs are loaded with the compliments. In fact, Caroline Aherne cunningly softened up her guest by complimenting her on her beauty before delivering the infamous one liner. The only response to such a question is to just hold your hands up and laugh. Paul Daniels sadly passed away in 2017, but the unfair gold digger label must have stuck around with Debbie McGee for a while, as she felt it was time to address it many years later in 2021.
The importance of Questions
Questions are important as we only have a limited supply of them. We can quickly wear down anyone’s patience with relentless questioning and they would be entitled to utter, “no more questions please.” So, we need to use them sparingly and wisely. If you ask the wrong question then you will get a meaningless answer, but questions also wield a certain amount of power that can catch out the unwary.
What are loaded questions?.
Questions can be loaded with presumptions and be used to apply pressure to other people. Sometimes this is done wittingly to coerce people and other times it is an unintended consequence of the questioner manifesting their agenda, or making assumptions.
We all make assumptions based on our experience, and they are largely helpful if not always correct. If we did not make any assumptions then we would, have to keep reinventing the wheel for every familiar situation.
It is also true that when we ask a question, we are rarely totally innocent as often we have our own agenda, otherwise we would just be curious without drive or motivation, and there is the human element; there is someone to impress or to make a positive impression upon, even if we do not intend to directly influence them through the question.
Loaded questions typically have a presumption which is a logical fallacy. The assumption in the question may be untrue, controversial, provocative or derogatory to the recipient of the question or other people.
In debates and interviews, loaded questions can be used in an inflammatory way to provoke a response, or trick someone into defending something they don’t believe in. They may be used by lawyers to get defendants to admit to something unwittingly or reveal knowledge that implies guilt. They are used in politics to pose rhetorical questions rather than sincere attempts to gather information.
Whether the question is inflammatory, usually depends on whether the presumption in the question is being made about the person being asked the question. Provocation can be used to bring about an emotional response which can derail someone’s logical processes or make them act defensively.
Some famous and not so famous examples of inflammatory loaded questions;
"Do you think it's acceptable for a president to lie to the American people?" - Dan Rather, during an interview with President George W. Bush in 2004. This is a loaded question because it implies that the president lied to the American people.
“When are you going to stop procrastinating and start working?" This question assumes that the person being asked is lazy and prone to procrastination.
"Have you finally given up on your dream of becoming an actor?" This question assumes that the person being asked had a dream of becoming an actor and implies that they have failed.
"Why are you afraid of transparency and accountability?" - Senator Elizabeth Warren, during a Senate hearing on the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary in 2017. This is a provocative question which implies that the person being asked is afraid of transparency and accountability.
"Why do you insist on putting chemicals in our food that cause cancer?" - Michael Moore, during an interview with a Monsanto representative in the documentary "Bowling for Columbine" (2002). This question implies that the person being asked is knowingly putting harmful chemicals in food.
Some non-inflammatory questions that are more subtle and tricky and it may be easier to fall into the trap of answering them;
"Why do you think people are afraid of change?" This question assumes that people are afraid of change, which may not be true, and puts the person being asked in a position to justify the actions of others based on beliefs that they may or may not have. It may be tempting to answer the question without questioning the assumption, which is a very broad assumption as it is generalised to all people. The assumption and the response that the recipient provides may be true for some people but cannot be true for all people and should be challenged.
“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?”
This is a famous example of a loaded question that was asked to Madeleine Albright, who was then the US secretary to the United Nations, during a CBS 60 Minutes in 1996. The question was relating to the impact of the United Nations’ sanctions against Iraq at the time.
She later had to retract her response; rather than questioning the assertion that half a million children had died, or how much of the death toll was attributable to the sanctions, she replied by saying, “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”
Albright later stated thar she should have answered the question by pointing out the false premise and reframing it to be more representative of the facts. She referred to her reply as a terrible mistake and that she, “had fallen into a trap and said something that she simply did not mean.”
Loading the Question for advantage
Let’s say you work in an office, and you are collaborating with someone working in another branch of the company and you need them to update you on the progress of several tasks, which you require before you can progress on your task, and you send them an email. You could ask:
“How are things going? When do you think you will be able to complete this project?”
And yes, you’ve guessed it, you don’t get any response to the email- you will probably only get a response when and if it is complete.
So, what are the alternatives? Rephrasing the question in the email:
“Oh, I forgot to ask. Could you send me the report on the project”
Assuming that the work has already been carried out but pretending that you forgot to ask for this in the last email and offering this as the reason for the delay in the receipt of their work rather than its non-completion.
Or assuming that the work is complete by asking a question that presumes this:
“Do you think I will need check the report with the original protocol before sending on to the executive board?”
“Shall we meet up for drinks this evening after we have sorted this one out?’
What if it may be your fault, perhaps the task was not carried out as you forgot to request it all those weeks ago, but you can’t quite remember, you’re probably not going to get away without being blamed but maybe the following might occasionally work:
“Oh, can you send me the report. Glad we got this out of the way.” Or perhaps:
“Do you think I should amend your report in such a way?”, both assuming that the task was previously requested and already completed.
Let’s say you are the boss, and you want to know if one of your employees has forgotten to carry out some tasks that you have asked them to perform.
“Can you send me X,Y and Z?” There is no immediate response. You might imagine your employee busting a gut to get it done and the next day you get X,Y and Z, or perhaps they didn’t see the email immediately. Can you distinguish between these two? Well, you might say:
“Our best client has run into real problems, and we really need X to help them out. Could you send me X ASAP please?
If you get X then they have probably achieved X only after you asked them because if they had already completed X,Y and Z then they would likely have responded by providing X,Y and Z.
Unloading the Question
A well-meaning boss was starting a new initiative in the company, and he was asking his employees if they could do some work on particular days. He asked his employees individually and they all said yes. After several months he realised that his employees were carrying out additional work at inconvenient hours and they had become exhausted and unhappy. Why? because he had asked a loaded question about their working hours, rather than inviting them to provide their opinion and suggestions and they had been too wary to be seen to say no. He realised in hindsight that his approach had been detrimental to the workforce.
These situations can arise where there is an imbalance in power between the employees and their boss. A similar problem can arise in medical consultations, if a doctor asks to many closed questions; "Have you experienced…….? How often does….?", without starting with enough open questions. This could lead the consultation away from the problem from the patient’s perspective and to it not being resolved.
How to avoid asking loaded Questions?
To avoid asking loaded questions ask open questions, be patient in awaiting a response and that may be mean allowing some one to defer the response until a future meeting, display patient body language and don’t display negative emotions in response to their answers. If there are several parts to the question, then break it into several questions where there are a range of permissible answers. Avoid using emotionally charged or judgemental language or exerting controversial viewpoints in the question.
How to Respond to Loaded Questions?
If you are asked a loaded question, you will probably have this uncomfortable feeling that you have received a negative comment, or you may have a feeling that you are trying to answer a question that you wouldn’t have asked yourself. Don’t be pressurized into answering the question as it has been phrased. Take a pause and think what aspect of the question made you feel uncomfortable. Check back with the person asking the question to clarify their understanding of what was asked and their underlying believes and assumptions. If you disagree with their presumptions, then call them out and challenge their presumptions and perhaps come to an agreed modification or rephrasing of the question and then try to answer the rephrased question instead.