the abeline paradox

2020-11-19

 | 

~3 min read

 | 

411 words

The ”Abilene Paradox” is the phenomenon in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action which is counter to most, if not all, of the participants in the group.

The paradox gets its name from a family trip Jerry B. Harvey (who is credited with popularizing the paradox in an article, “The Abilene paradox: the management of agreement” in Organizational Dynamics) took with his wife and in-laws one hot summer day:

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 [50-mile] 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.

Much more entertaining is this recording from a lecture Harvey delivered at George Washington University in 1981.

Knowing how easy it is to “take a trip to Abeline” means I’m much more vigilant in ensuring that a group decision is one the group actually wants. Once you know it exists, you see these trips planned everywhere (a consequence of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon no doubt).


Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!