The Abilene Paradox

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How often has this happened to you: your family gets together for the holidays and ends up doing something -- going out for food, playing some game, going to see a movie -- that nobody actually wants to do? This happened to me over the holidays when my family planned a trip to a local restaurant. We all agreed to go at a certain time, because each of us assumed that everybody else wanted to go. But secretly, nobody wanted to go. We caught the situation at the last minute when somebody piped up and confessed that he didn't particularly want to go out. "Oh, me neither!" we all agreed.

There's a name for this situation, my brother then told us: the Abilene paradox. According to Wikipedia:

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.

Of course, in my case somebody did raise an objection -- but there must have been countless instances where we've done something (like seen a particular movie, etc.) which actually none of us particularly wanted to do. Read more about the Abilene paradox after the jump.

More from Wikipedia:

It was observed by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his article The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management. [Now expanded into a book -Higgins] 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 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.

Have you experienced the Abilene paradox? Share your experiences in the comments...and remember to speak up the next time you don't want to do something!

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January 24, 2008 - 8:36am
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