In an Abilene paradox a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group's and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene Paradox is a desire not to "rock the boat." This differs from groupthink in that the Abilene paradox is characterized by an inability to manage agreement.
The term was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote in the article which Harvey uses to elucidate the paradox:
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 [53 miles north] 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.
Ronald Sims writes that the Abilene paradox is similar to groupthink, but differs in significant ways, including that in groupthink individuals are not acting contrary to their conscious wishes and generally feel good about the decisions the group has reached. According to Sims, in the Abilene paradox, the individuals acting contrary to their own wishes are more likely to have negative feelings about the outcome. In Sims' view, groupthink is a psychological phenomenon affecting clarity of thought, where in the Abilene paradox thought is unaffected.
Like groupthink theories, the Abilene paradox theory is used to illustrate that groups not only have problems managing disagreements, but that agreements may also be a problem in a poorly functioning group.
The phenomenon is explained by social psychology theories of social conformity and social influence which suggest human beings are often very averse to acting contrary to the trend of a group. According to Harvey, the phenomenon may occur when individuals experience action-anxiety — stress concerning the group potentially expressing negative attitudes towards them if they do not go along. This action-anxiety arises from what Harvey termed "negative fantasies" — unpleasant visualizations of what the group might say or do if individuals are honest about their opinions — when there is "real risk" of displeasure and negative consequences for not going along. The individual may experience "separation anxiety", fearing exclusion from the group.
Applications of the theory
The theory is often used to help explain extremely poor group decisions, especially notions of the superiority of "rule by committee." For example, Harvey himself cited the Watergate scandal as a potential instance of the Abilene paradox in action. The Watergate scandal occurred in the United States in the 1970s when many high officials of the administration of then President Richard Nixon, a Republican, colluded in the cover-up and perhaps the execution of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. Harvey quotes several people indicted for the cover-up as indicating that they had personal qualms about the decision but feared to voice them. For one instance, campaign aide Herbert Porter said that he "was not one to stand up in a meeting and say that this should be stopped", a decision he then attributed to "the fear of the group pressure that would ensue, of not being a team player".
A technique to help reduce the chance of making a poor decision mentioned in the study and/or training of management, as well as practical guidance by consultants, is that when the time comes for a group to make a decision, group members should ask each other, "Are we going to Abilene?" to determine whether their decision is legitimately desired by the group's members.
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- Harvey, Jerry B. (1996). The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management (paperback). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-0277-2
- Harvey, Jerry B. (1999). How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back, My Fingerprints Are on the Knife?. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-4787-3
- How to Identify Groupthink: an Introduction to the Abilene Paradox
- How to Avoid Bad Decisions and Why Not to Go to Abilene
- Combat the Abilene Paradox by Identifying Groupthink