By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
A popular focus in the polling for the presidential race right now is to ask about the various potential general election match-ups: What if it was Clinton versus Trump? Or Sanders versus Cruz? Clinton versus Rubio? Sanders versus Bush? As often as we hear that kind of data, professional pollsters will tell you that these kinds of questions, at this stage at least, have virtually no predictive power. The problem is that the question is based on a hypothetical “What if…” scenario. People have enough trouble self-reporting their attitudes in the relatively static context of current conditions. Add in the hypothetical scenario and you are also adding in a number of other unknowns: For example, what kind of amazing turnaround (or spectacular collapse in the other candidates) would have catapulted Bush to the GOP nomination? If the Democrats end up with Sanders, will that be because he effectively courted and converted the establishment wing, or will it be because his progressive wing overpowered the establishment? Our preference in any of these match-ups would be shaped by the events leading up to it. Or, more simply, the hypothetical match-up question posits a future situation that we just have not had a chance to think about or to get used to. Respondents can and will give an answer, but the answer isn’t terribly reliable.
The problems with hypothetical questions apply to litigation as well. Particularly when taking depositions, attorneys will want to get a witness to weigh in on a hypothetical scenario. The physician-deponent, for example, might be asked what they would do if a patient presented with symptoms A, B, and C. That can be an attractive question for the attorney because it secures agreement at a very general level, and that general answer can then be mapped against the more specific facts of the case. The attorney can also use the hypothetical question in order to get around an argument at another level: They can set aside for the moment the physician’s belief that the patient in question lacked symptom B, for example. The hypothetical questioning style can be tricky for the witness, though. Prepared to talk about the facts, witnesses can instead find themselves in a world removed from those facts, and being led along by just providing the seemingly obvious or easy answers can lead to trouble. This post will share four ideas on handling the hypothetical question.