The Abilene Paradox

When we all end up doing what nobody wanted to do

I was out at a dinner with a large group of friends recently.  At the end of the night I overheard two people talking about a local beach party.  One said “these beach parties are a big thing here in Spain.”  The other said “yeah, I heard.”

The conversation then went “Do you want to go?”

“I don’t know, I’m tired.”

They pulled in another friend: “Hey Jim, do you want to go to the beach party?”

Jim replied: “Are you guys going?  If you are going then maybe I could join for a drink.”

Pretty soon the whole group was trading “I’ll go if you guys are going” comments and they were all set to go to the beach party.

Now, this blog is not about whether beach parties are good or bad, just a reflection on how this group ended up deciding to do something that no single individual started out with a desire to do.  They may have had an awesome night.  They may have arrived and found it a complete waste of money.

As an observer, it really struck me how the idea went from a throw-away comment between two people to a fully-fledged plan within a few minutes.

Speaking to my friend Verne Harnish the next day, he said “Oh, you’re talking about the Abilene Paradox”.

The “Abilene Paradox”

The Abilene Paradox was coined by Jerry B. Harvey, Professor at George Washington University and author of “The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management.” The Paradox is explained using a parable of a family who ends up making a trip that no single one of them wished to:

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 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.

Groupthink

This is basic groupthink.

A bad decision driven by nice people trying to be nice to each other. I, personally, fear “nice” people. I fear people who say what they think the other wants them to say, rather than directly expressing what their own interest and desire is.

I like people who genuinely care about others, but clearly have a sense of who they are and what they stand for.

So, my friend, do you want to go to Abilene? 😉

3 Comments

  1. Hi Conor,

    Just one more example given by Social Psychology. I’m sure you all have heard about Milgram Experiment, Asch Experiment and others.

    I strongly recommend reading chapter ( “Procesos de Influencia Social” in Miguel García and Francisco Gil’s “Introducción a la Psicología de los Grupos”.
    Milgram made his experiment just after Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem when Hannah Arendt wrote about the Banality of Evil. Abilene Paradox is another vision (a soft one) of the same topic.

    Best,

    Fran.

    Like

  2. Perhaps is because I’m reading your posts, or perhaps simply because it’s just that, but the comment that comes to my mind is in your January 3rd’s post “External orientation” …mode 2, we sometimes (many?) act driven by the aim of pleasing others….. I do like genuine people as well..
    In times when the “normal” pace is frantic, and we move without thinking too much, the challenge sometimes lays in staying still….and look inside..and be genuine.

    Like

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