The Trickery of Leading Questions

Yes, Prime Minister

Leading questions are questions that are purposely phrased and presented in such a way that they prompt the respondent to think and answer them in a particular way. Leading questions have the potential to subtly change respondents’ opinions about a topic and to shape their responses to the questions that follow.

Example of Leading Questions and Suggestive Interrogation

Consider the following interchange from the popular 1980s British political satire (and one of my all-time favorite shows) Yes, Prime Minister. In The Ministerial Broadcast episode, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley discuss how leading questions can be used to influence the results of opinion polls—in their case regarding the reintroduction of National Service, military conscription in the UK.

In Yes, Prime Minister, Sir Appleby (played by Nigel Hawthorne) is the Cabinet Secretary, UK’s principal bureaucrat and a scheming master of manipulation and obfuscation. Woolley (played by Derek Fowlds) is the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary.

In the following clip, Sir Appleby presents a set of leading questions designed to elicit opinion survey responses in support of National Service. He then presents another set of leading questions poised to produce responses opposing National Service.

The Effect of the Leading Questions

First, Sir Appleby demonstrates that asking the following leading questions can sway a respondent to support the reintroduction of National Service:

  • Are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?
  • Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?
  • Do you think there is lack of discipline in our comprehensive schools?
  • Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?
  • Do you think they’ll respond to a challenge?
  • Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?”

This set of six questions brilliantly exemplifies the use of leading questions. They are designed and presented in such a way that they trigger agreement—‘yes’ seems an obvious answer to each. After all, everybody is inclined to be worried about teenage crime and youth unemployment. After this pattern of concordance, Sir Appleby throws in the well-worded crucial question about National Service. In fact, this last question is worded in such a way that it offers National Service as a supposed solution to all the aforementioned problems. Once more, the answer is agreement.

In the second half of his interchange with Woolley, Sir Appleby demonstrates that another set of deliberate leading questions can make the respondent oppose the reintroduction of National Service:

  • Are you worried about the danger of war?
  • Are you worried about the growth of armaments?
  • Do you think there’s a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?
  • Do you think it’s wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?
  • Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?

Sir Humphrey’s first four questions are deliberately designed to produce agreement. In keeping with the survey’s design, the fifth question does too: a person who is concerned about arms and opposed to forcing the youth to take up arms against their will is bound to oppose reintroduction of National Service.

Idea for Impact: Sensitize Yourself to Leading Questions; Use Them if Necessary

Firstly, trust surveys, statistics, and anecdotes at your own discretion. Question everything.

Secondly, sensitize yourself to leading questions. Be alert and aware of all the negative ploys, manipulations, and other persuasive devices that others can shrewdly use to influence your thinking.

Thirdly, and more consequentially, use leading questions when you hold a strong personal opinion on a topic of discussion and must engage others in your favor. If necessary, use leading questions to change their opinion or even to gather some slanted information. While I am not one to condone deception, I do recommend such manipulative techniques as long as you use them for positive ends—sometimes certain ends do justify certain means.

Comments

  1. Venkatasubramanian says

    Excellent article and video.
    We have to be careful when we design surveys and answer surveys.

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