trick question

Loaded question

Many questions, also known as complex question, presupposition, loaded question, "trick question", or plurium interrogationum (Latin, "of many questions"), is an informal fallacy or logical fallacy. It is committed when someone asks a question that presupposes something that has not been proven or accepted by all the people involved. This fallacy is often used rhetorically, so that the question limits direct replies to those that serve the questioner's agenda. An example of this is the question "Are you still beating your wife?" Whether the respondent answers yes or no, he will admit to having a wife, and having beaten her at some time in the past. Thus, these facts are presupposed by the question, and in this case an entrapment, because it narrows the respondent to a single answer, and the fallacy of many questions has been committed.

The fallacy relies upon context for its effect: the fact that a question presupposes something does not in itself make the question fallacious. Only when some of these presuppositions are not necessarily agreed to by the person who is asked the question does the argument containing them become fallacious.

A related fallacy is begging the question, in which a premise is included that is likely to be at least as unacceptable to an opponent as the proposed conclusion.

Implied form

One form of misleading discourse is where something is implied without being said explicitly, by phrasing it as a question. For example, the question "Does Mr. Jones have a brother in the army?" does not claim that he does, but implies that there must be at least some indication that he does, or the question would not need to be asked. The person asking the question is thus protected from accusations of making false claims, but still manages to make the implication in the form of a hidden compound question. The fallacy isn't in the question itself, but rather in the listener's assumption that the question would not have been asked without some evidence to support the supposition. This example seems harmless, but consider: "Does Mr. Jones have a brother in jail?" In order to have the desired effect, the question must imply something uncommon enough not to be asked without some evidence to the fact. For example, the question "Does Mr. Jones have a brother?" would not cause the listener to think there must be some evidence that he does, since this form of general question is frequently asked with no foreknowledge of the answer.

Types of complex questions

Each of these questions has an assumption built into the question that is asked:

  • Loaded questions: contain an incriminating assumption that the questioned person seems to admit to if she answers the question instead of challenging it. For example, "Are you still beating your wife?" A loaded question may be asked to trick the respondent into admitting something that the questioner beleives to be true, and which may in fact be true. So the previous question is "loaded," whether or not the respondent has actually beaten his wife.
  • Buttering-up: actually asks two questions, one that the questioned person will want to answer "yes" to, and another that the questioner hopes will be answered with the same "yes". For example, "Would you be a nice guy and loan me five bucks?"
  • Legitimately complex questions (not a fallacy): A question that assumes something that the hearer would readily agree to. For example, "Who is the Queen of the United Kingdom?" assumes that there is a place called the United Kingdom and that it has a queen, both true.
  • Illegitimately complex question: On the other hand, "Who is the King of France?" would commit the complex question fallacy because while it assumes there is a place called France (true), it also assumes it has a king (false). But since this answering the question does not seem to incriminate or otherwise embarrass the speaker, it is complex but not really a loaded question.
  • Implied Dilemma (not a fallacy): A form of “trick question” to impose the outcome of a negative response to validate the dilemma, and in which the positive response has an invariant outcome in the concocted dilemma. For example, if a boss asks an employee, “Do you have a future here?”, even if the recipient answers with a positive response, the outcome of the positive response was never in the recipient's control to begin with; this form of questioning is often used for complacency of the recipient or to speed results in interrogations.


A common way out of this argument is to not respond with a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer, but with a full statement that also includes context. To use an earlier example, a good response to the question "Do you still beat your wife?" would be either "I have never beaten my wife" or "I have never had a wife." This removes the ambiguity of the expected response, therefore nullifying the tactic. However, the askers of said questions have learned to get around this tactic by accusing the one who answers with "dodging" the question. A rhetorical question such as "Then please explain, how could I possibly have beaten a wife that I've never had?" can be an effective antidote to this further tactic, placing the burden on the deceptive questioner either to expose his tactic or stop the line of inquiry.

Historical example

Madeleine Albright (U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.) famously answered a loaded question, instead of challenging it, on 60 Minutes on 12 May, 1996. Leslie Stahl asked, regarding the effects of sanctions on Iraq, "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.” She later wrote of this response

I must have been crazy; I should have answered the question by reframing it and pointing out the inherent flaws in the premise behind it. … As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. My reply had been a terrible mistake, hasty, clumsy, and wrong. … I had fallen into a trap and said something that I simply did not mean. That is no one’s fault but my own.


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