The Abilene paradox is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the
preferences of any 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 do not raise objections.
It was observed by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his article The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management.
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. They arrive back home four hours
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. "
The phenomenon may be a form of groupthink. It is easily explained by social psychology theories of social conformity
and social cognition which suggest that human beings are often very averse to acting contrary to the trend of the group. Likewise,
it can be observed in psychology that indirect cues and hidden motives often lie behind peoples' statements and acts, frequently
because social disincentives discourage individuals from openly voicing their feelings or pursuing their desires.
This anecdote was also made into a short film for management education. The theory is often used to help explain extremely
poor business decisions, especially notions of the superiority of "rule by committee." A technique mentioned in
the study and/or training of management, as well as practical guidance by consultants, is that group members, when the time
comes for a group to make decisions, should ask each other, "Are we going to Abilene?" to determine whether their
decision is legitimately desired by the group's members or merely a result of this kind of groupthink.
The Abilene Paradox is related to the concept of groupthink in that both theories appear to explain the observed behavior
of groups in social contexts. The crux of the theory is that groups have just as many problems managing their agreements as
they do their disagreements. This observation rings true among many researchers in the Social sciences and tends to reinforce
other theories of individual and group behavior.