This question arose from this discussion on Meta Academia SE. This discussion on Meta Travel SE is also related. I also clearly remember questions on the Workplace to which the following applies; this one is an example and probably the best example for the situation in general. The general scenario is the following:

A user asks about an extraordinary situation on a question-and-answer site, which has strong indications of being made up: Either some details are implausible or the asker apparently lacks knowledge that they should have if they are who they claim to be. The asker does not mark the situation as hypothetical or similar. Often, the asker is a completely new user and vanishes after asking the question.

My question is: What motivations, if any, could somebody have to ask such questions? For the purpose of this question, I wish to assume the following:

  • The asker does not want to game the system, i.e., gain reputation quickly for some purpose. I already consider this.
  • The asker does not have genuine interest in a hypothetical situation (e.g., for writing a story about the respective scenario).
  • The situation is really completely made-up. I am aware that it’s often difficult to tell with great confidence that a situation is made-up, but that’s another problem.

There's a really simple answer to this: human curiosity. Stack Exchange even has an entire site dedicated to questions of the same ilk. Obviously, it's not quite the same thing, since other sites are dedicated to practical, answerable questions... however, there's a unifying principle at work here.

Suppose you were curious about what were to happen if a young, highly talented worker were to come into a workplace, solve problems with expediency, and yet were, say, disruptively frustrating. What would a manager do? Now suppose you didn't know enough to answer the question on your own.

There are two routes you can take: ask a question that you state up-front is hypothetical, or invent a thought experiment representing your ideas. It's not hard to imagine that someone will know a hypothetical question won't be received well. So, what do people do? Present a story!

There's another plausible facet to this. A "hypothetical question" could actually be self-referential, written in the third person voice, with some details changed. Particularly on sites like Academia and The Workplace, posting what one perceives to be potentially self-identifying details is disconcerting. It's not implausible that one would change these details - and write in third person - to prevent self-identification without destroying the integrity of the advice.

Other times, people are just trolling.

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  • Thinking about it, could you expand the aspect of trolling a bit, i.e., why would a troll troll this way? – Wrzlprmft Dec 10 '15 at 9:56
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    @Wrzlprmft That's hard for me to say, because I'm not very good at trolling - I don't enjoy it. However, it's not beyond belief that someone would get a kick out of it. A more detailed elaboration of that point will have to go to another answerer, though. – user35 Dec 10 '15 at 10:21

This is my understanding of it (I've seen and agree with exactly what you describe.) I apologize if it sounds like psychobabble.

Humans are complicated, invariably flawed creatures with psychosocial needs, some of which can be very perplexing to people without the same kinds of needs.

Straying a bit to give an example, there is an illness called Munchausen by proxy, where a caregiver harms someone with limited ability to defend themselves for particular self-serving psychological needs (attention, admiration, pity, respect, etc.) I can't imagine being so desperate for attention/admiration/other that I would hurt someone under my care to get it, but there it is, and it's the cause of many thousands of deaths worldwide every year.

People have a lot of ways to interact with others, including electronically. Some people will get relatively incomprehensible needs met by posting nonfactual material on blogs, forums, and on Q&A sites.

Say someone wants to openly express a hatred of women in a relatively anonymous fashion (this recently happened on one of the SE sites.) The user posted a question appropriate to the site, but which on analysis was clearly contrived solely to sexually objectify and humiliate women publicly. Highly-likely-the-same user posted questions - again, "appropriate" to the site - designed to express anti-Muslim (two occasions, if I remember correctly) and anti-Christian (one occasion) sentiment. The person has a need I don't quite understand except to say they have a psychopathology, and are expressing it on the site.

As with any interesting phenomenon, I think eventually this aspect of electronic media use will be studied, but until then, one can only guess at what needs are being met by such behavior. I can understand these posts from a variety of angles: the person wants attention, to expression bigotry, to perform a social experiment, wants to have some power over others, wants simply to amuse themselves, who knows? But I agree, it definitely happens.

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This is a simpler version of the other two answers. Zahavi's bond testing principle (the original article is not freely available on line, but here's a brief mention of it in a book chapter) states that individuals are compelled to test their value to others so that they know the extent to which they can rely on others. This compulsion is not usually conscious. Zahavi uses this to explain many things, from tantrums to the way your dog leans against you (or your dogs lean against each other). I could believe it would extend to testing community support.

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