What Is the Abilene Paradox?

The Abilene paradox describes a phenomenon under which a group agrees to a decision that is paradoxically against the interests of most or all of the members of that group.

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The Abilene paradox is a term that describes a phenomenon under which a group collectively agrees to a decision that is paradoxically against the interests of most or all of the members of that group. In simple terms, the Abilene paradox occurs when group members vote against their own interests to avoid "rocking the boat," not realizing that the group's interests are actually congruent with their own.

The term "Abilene paradox" was fostered by management expert Jerry B. Harvey, who based the name on an illustrative example of the phenomenon he offered in his 1974 article "The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement":

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene for dinner. The wife says, "Sounds like a great idea." The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, "Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go." The mother-in-law then says, "Of course I want to go. I haven't been to Abilene in a long time."

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, "It was a great trip, wasn't it?" The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, "I wasn't delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." The wife says, "I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that." The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Most people have a natural social tendency to want to conform to the interests of the groups to which they belong, and an aversion to challenging the feelings of those groups. But when too many members of a group are afraid to speak up for fear of being criticized or viewed as selfish, the Abilene paradox can kick in, and the group may make decisions that run contrary to the true interests or desires of its members.

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