The best-known trick question is “When did you stop beating your wife?” Any conventional answer to the question confirms its assumption. To escape the trap you need to call out the question. This type of question isn’t that common in practice. It’s really just a rhetorical gimmick.
The most important and common type of trick question sounds more like “Do you love Big Brother?” It’s a question where an unacceptable answer, regardless of whether it’s true or false, will be punished, and the punishment is greater than the reward for a true answer. I’m going to call these milgram questions, after the famous psychology experiment where electric shocks were administered for wrong answers.
Some milgram questions are intended as genuine questions. But often they only pretend to be a query on the semantic content of the words. The question “Do you love Big Brother” is actually asking “Do you submit to my power?” Or more generally, “Will you agree with me, or suffer the consequences?”
Of course no one actually asks questions about Big Brother. What they ask instead is “Do you believe taboo claim X is true?” or “Do you agree with mean-sounding claim Y, which will hurt your reputation among our audience?” or simply “Do you reject the ideology of the dominant regime?”
“Of course I don’t!”
In some cases there are real, material consequences for an unacceptable answer and the questioner knows it, you know it, and he knows you know it. In other cases the only consequence for an unacceptable answer is a loss of status points. But status is important, and this amounts to a real penalty.
When the punishment for an unacceptable answer is greater than the reward for a true answer, acceptable answers become untrustworthy, and indeed semantically meaningless. We should consider them affirmations of loyalty or submission, not real answers to the stated question. Unacceptable answers, on the other hand, are highly likely to be genuine, because they come at a personal cost.
Of course, acceptable answers to milgram questions that are wholly anonymous, so the speaker is shielded from any consequences, really can be meaningful. But today even major social media networks are only partially anonymous, since there are persistent identities that can be locally penalized by the network managers.
The average person is, on a conscious level at least, oblivious to the true nature of milgram questions. When everyone gives the acceptable answer, “Yes, I love Big Brother,” it really does reinforce his belief in that answer. The average person trusts the answers to milgram questions, because the average person is, frankly, a zombie.
But you’re not a zombie. Are you?
Milgram questions play an important role in reinforcing the dominant ideology. A very important role, actually. What would happen if the concept I’ve just explained here gained wide currency, so that even right-thinking rationalists had to admit that some questions are essentially fraudulent, and that many important issues can only be discussed anonymously?
When asked a milgram question, you should always point out that it’s a milgram question. Point out that any acceptable answers you might give, or anyone else might give, are untrustworthy, except as de facto declarations of loyalty.
As soon as this is made clear to everyone, milgram questions lose their ability to reinforce the dominant ideology. They are revealed as mere demands for obedience, derived from raw power, not fidelity to truth; and by consequence their control of actual beliefs is weakened. (Disclaimer: don’t try this “call them out” strategy in an interrogation room, torture chamber, or Occidental workplace. After all, raw power is still raw power.)
At present you’ll have to give your interrogator a concise definition of the term. A milgram question is a question where the penalty for an “unacceptable” answer is greater than the reward for a true answer, on account of which no acceptable answer can be trusted.
But after you make this little article famous, you can just point out, “That’s a milgram question,” and everyone will know what you mean.
Now go forth, dear readers, and meme it to the masses.