Abilene Paradox

What Exactly is Abilene Paradox?

The Abilene Paradox is the name Jerry Harvey (1988) uses to describe the tendency of people to not voice their true thoughts because they want to please others.

By definition, Abilene Paradox is the counterintuitive tendency for a group to decide on a course of action that none of the members of the group individually endorses, resulting from the group’s failure to recognize and manage its agreement on key issues.

The Abilene Paradox has also been defined as the tendency of people to resist voicing their true thoughts or feelings in order to please others and avoid conflict.

As the story goes, the Abilene Paradox was created on a hot July afternoon in Coleman, Texas. The characters are a married couple Jerry Harvey with his wife, and his wife’s parents. In the excerpt below, Harvey tells the full story…

We’d just done the opposite of what we wanted to do — Jerry Harvey (1988).

The day was hot and dusty, as was often the case in July in the small town of Coleman, Texas. Jerry Harvey, his wife, and his wife’s parents were fanning themselves on the back porch, playing dominoes and drinking lemonade. Suddenly, Jerry’s father-in-law suggested, “Let’s get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria” (Harvey, 1988, p. 13).

One member questioned the suggestion: Abilene? In the heat of the day, drive over fifty miles one way in a Buick with no air conditioning? The daughter agreed to go, provided the mother wanted to go who agreed to go, provided the son-in-law wanted to go. One-by-one each agreed to go provided that the other parties wanted to go too.

So off the group went, to Abilene, and as predicted, some four hours later, canvassed over one hundred miles of western Texas, battled soaring heat and blowing sand, all to eat marginal food. As the sun began to set, the four, exhausted and hot, sat in silence on the porch.

    we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who—of our own volition—had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in furnace-like heat and dust storm to eat unpalatable food in a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. To be concise, we’d just done the opposite of what we wanted to do. (Harvey, 1988, p. 14)

The silence was finally broken by the son-in-law who exclaimed that it was great trip. The mother was a little irritated and complained that she really had not wanted to go and would have rather stayed at home, but went along because the other three were enthusiastic about going to Abilene. She looked at her daughter and said that she would not have gone if she was not pressured into going, and considered her daughter the culprit.

The son-in-law exclaimed that he would have been delighted to stay at home, but went only because the father wanted to go. The father claimed that he really had not wanted to go, and only offered it because he thought everyone was bored. The daughter admitted that she went along with the Abilene trip only to be sociable.

The Abilene group suffered from a severe case of pluralistic ignorance—a situation in which a minority position on an issue is incorrectly perceived to be the majority position, or vice versa (see Pluralistic Ignorance Opens in new window). The group members mistakenly believed that their private opinion about the Abilene outing was discrepant from the other group members’ opinions.

Therefore each group member, wishing to be seen as a cooperative member of the family, publicly conformed to what they thought was the group’s norm, each one erroneously assuming that he or she was the only one with misgivings.

Jerry went to Abilene because that is what everyone else wanted to do—or so he thought. Unfortunately, everyone else was thinking the same thing, so the group mismanaged its consensus (Miller & McFarland, 1991).

In addition, the group committed to its decision quickly, and did not reconsider its choice when negative consequences—the heat, the cost, the discomfort mounted. This process is sometimes termed entrapment—a special form of commitment escalation Opens in new window that occurs when the group expends “more of its time, energy, money, or other resources than seems justifiable by external standards” (Pruitt & Kim, 2004, p. 165),

Abilene Paradox share similarity with groupthink, a term coined by Irving Janis to describe an extreme form of normative influence, where the norm to reach and maintain consensus and harmony within the group completely eliminates any information influence that could show how disastrous the group’s intended decision is likely to be. (see Groupthink Opens in new window).

But unlike groupthink Opens in new window, which involves active participation of the group members, the Abilene Paradox is more passive, where the inability to cope with and manage agreement, can become a major source of organizational dysfunction. Examples of this “groupthink” mentality, include the Challenger space shuttle Opens in new window, Pearl Harbor Opens in new window, Watergate Opens in new window and many other extreme group decisions that culminated in disaster.

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The Abilene Paradox spans organizational behavior, whether it is in business, politics, or education. More than one organization has been caught in the web of Abilene Paradox. As a result, the organization may have been diverted, or, occasionally, embarked on a similar voyage to Abilene, when some other point was the original destination. For most organizations, the negative outcome of such decisions can be measured in terms of both human misery and economic loss.

The lesson to be learned from the Abilene Paradox of course, is that people in groups, tend to agree on courses of action that individually they know don’t make sense. At times, individuals agree with courses of action to be socially acceptable or to fit in with the group even though they may have serious reservations about the planned course of action.

Causes of Abilene Paradox

Groups sometimes make decisions that veer far from the plans, desires, and preferences of their individual members. Organization expert Jerry Harvey’s Abilene paradox aptly illustrates this tendency, highlighting four factors that can cause members to mismanage their group’s agreement:

  • action anxiety: the individuals become anxious about taking the right action in contradiction to what is presently happening in the organization or group.
  • negative fantasies: the individuals anticipate and emphasize only negative outcomes if they act the right way.
  • real risk: taking the right action might risk the individual being in a worse position (e.g., sacked) than if the current set of circumstances were left to run their course.
  • fear of separation: individuals don’t wish to risk being ostracized by their work colleagues and others (a very real problem faced by whistleblowers, for instance).

Sometimes the paradox occurs because others take strong positions, enticing others to follow without carefully thinking through the implications of the action. Oftentimes, people inadvertently transfer responsibility to other leaders assuming that they have carefully researched and thought through their recommendations and decisions.

Very few people are immune to this effect and it requires people to stop and think, and then assert their objections about a given course of action, regardless of the potential consequences. At times, this can be hard to do, especially if the consequences of speaking up can be either career limiting or result in being socially outcast.

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