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 (a city 53 miles north of Coleman) 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.
This anecdote was written by management expert Jerry B. Harvey to elucidate a paradox found in human nature, where a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is against the best wishes of any individual in the group. Essentially, the group agrees to do something that would not benefit any one, or the group as a whole. This is the Abilene paradox, colloquially known to us through the idiom: “do not rock the boat”.
As seen in the anecdote, there is a breakdown of communication where each member assumes that the majority of the group will decide to follow the action, pushing them towards conformity. There is a mutual mistaken belief that everyone wants the action when no one does, leading to no one raising objections. This is a type of phenomenon called groupthink (coined by George Orwell in his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four), where people do not present alternatives or objections, or even voicing their opinions simply because they believe that will ruin the harmony of the group. They are also under peer-pressure, believing that by being the one voice against the unanimous decision they will become ostracised.
The Abilene paradox explains why poor decisions are made by businesses, especially in committees. Because no one objects to a bad idea (falsely believing that that is what the group wants), even bad ideas are accepted unanimously. This is particularly dangerous when combined with cognitive dissonance, where the group will believe that they chose that decision because it was rational and logical. To prevent this paradox from destroying individual creativity in the group, one should always ask other members if they actually agree with the decision or are merely the victims of groupthink.