Abilene paradox: A false consensus: a situation in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the wishes of many (or all) of the group members. Also called the Abilene effect, rule by committee, and social conformity.
The Abilene paradox was named by Jerry B. Harvey, a professor of management science at George Washington University, in a paper originally published in 1974 in the journal Organizational Dynamics. The Abilene Paradox is also the title of a 1988 book by Harvey.
The paradox arises from the inability to manage agreement, Harvey wrote. He used an anecdote from his own experience to illustrate his point: On a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, Harvey’s family was playing dominoes on the porch when his father-in-law suggests they all drive to Abilene, 53 miles north, for dinner. Harvey thought it sounded like a terrible idea – the family car was an unairconditioned 1958 Buick – but when his wife said, “Sounds like a great idea,” he doubted his initial response and agreed to go, as did his mother-in-law:
So into the car and off to Abilene we went. My predictions were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. We were coated with a fine layer of dust that was cemented with perspiration by the time we arrived. The food at the cafeteria provided first-rate testimonial material for antacid commercials.
Some four hours and 106 miles later we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted. We sat in front of the fan in silence. Then, both to be sociable and to break the silence, I said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”
No one spoke. Finally, my mother-in-law said, with some irritation, “Well, to tell the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.”
I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean, ‘you all’?” I said. “Don’t put me in the ‘you all’ group. … I only went to satisfy the rest of you. You’re the culprits.”
My wife looked shock. “Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to be sociable and to keep you happy.” …
Her father entered the conversation abruptly. “Hell!” he said.
He proceeded to expand on what was already absolutely clear. “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored. … I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.”
I learned of the Abilene paradox when I read an essay by Ann Patchett in the New York Times’s Well blog. In the essay, Patchett describes a party she and her husband used to throw every Christmas Eve for their extended families:
I have a very loose definition of family, and anyone who could fit beneath that wide umbrella was welcome, including, but in no way limited to, my mother’s third husband’s first wife, their grown children, and the spouses and children of those grown children. My stepsister’s husband’s parents came. My husband’s first wife came with her second husband, and her second husband brought his first wife and their son as well as his mother. Did you follow that? No, probably not.
Then, one year, Patchett’s mother’s third husband said he wouldn’t be coming to the party. That, in fact, he could not stand the party. And when Patchett reported the conversation to her husband, “he got a steely look in his eyes. ‘I hate that party,’ he said. ‘I’ve always hated that party.’”
In a comment, reader “CT,” from Houston, wrote:
It has a name!
My husband and I were tickled to learn of the concept of “the Abilene paradox” and the story behind it, which is told in its Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abilene_paradox
The Abilene paradox differs from groupthink: in groupthink, group members are not acting contrary to their wishes, and they usually feel good about their decision.