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A hypothetical question is one that deals with events that might possibly happen, rather than what has or has not actually happened. To narrow down the number of possible answers, the questioner usually sets up imaginary parameters, such as “What would happen if the sun went out?” This is often described as a hypothetical situation. A person who asks a hypothetical question may be seeking, or claim to be seeking, an impartial answer. The usual objective is to imagine the most likely scenario or scenarios that might occur in a given hypothetical situation.
Hypothetical questions are frequently used in public rhetoric and communications, as well as in everyday conversation. They should not be confused with rhetorical questions, which are questions that have no expected answer. Hypothetical questions are expected to be answered, but the answer has no bearing on actual events, at least in theory. In casual conversation, the person who asks a hypothetical question may actually be trying to figure out the likely outcome for an action that he or she is considering. In public discourse, speakers may likewise have ulterior motives for employing hypothetical questions.
Scientific studies have shown that certain kinds of hypothetical questions can influence the person who hears them, whether the questioner intends it or not. For example, the question “How likely are you to vote for Candidate X?” tends to subtly cast Candidate X in a positive light, especially when asked by the candidate’s pollsters. A more neutral question might be “Which candidate are you likely to vote for?” The questions in public opinion and scientific surveys, in which accuracy is paramount, are worded to emphasize neutrality. In advertising and public relations, which are intended to sway and persuade the public, questions may be worded deliberately to further these ends.
“Hypothetical question” is also a legal term in the justice systems of the U.S. and other countries. This usually refers to a question posed by an attorney in witness testimony. In general, questions should be confined to the evidence and testimony particular to the case, and hypothetical questions may result in a legal objection. In some instances, however, a hypothetical question may be relevant. An expert witness, for example, can describe the likelihood of a hypothetical situation occurring, as long as it falls entirely within the field of his or her expertise.
Science, particularly theoretical physics, also depends upon hypothetical questions and situations. These are sometimes called “thought experiments.” Instead of describing situations that have not occurred, they describe situations that science does not yet fully understand. By applying all the known facts and speculating about the results, scientists can actually achieve insights and advance knowledge through these thought experiments. This practice is particularly useful for scientific fields in which observation and experiment are impractical or impossible, such as quantum mechanics or astrophysics.