Abilene paradox

The notion of an Abilene paradox describes a situation in which a group of people comes to a mutual decision that is contrary to what some or all of the group members prefer or believe is best.

The situation comes from a lack or absence of communication within the group and beliefs among the members that their opinions are contrary to the group’s. Members do not wish to rock the boat.

The Abilene paradox was presented and described 1974 (Harvey, 1974) as a group’s inability to agree.

In this article he illustrates the phenomenon by telling a family anecdote where he, his wife and his parent in law decides to take a trip on an excruciatingly hot Texas afternoon in spite of all of them rather have stayed at home. The decision comes from a shared belief that the other family members want to go and no one want to oppose the perceived conformity of the group.

The July afternoon in Coleman, Texas (popula- tion 5,607) was particularly hot—104 degrees as measured by the Walgreen’s Rexall Ex-Lax temperature gauge. In addition, the wind was blowing fine-grained West Texas topsoil through the house. But the afternoon was still tolerable — evern potentially enjoyable. There was a fan going on the back porch; there was cold lemonade; and finally, there was enter- tainment. Dominoes. Perfect for the condi- tions. The game required little more physical exertion than an occasional mumbled com- ment. “Shuffle em,” and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the spots in the ap- propriate perspective on the table. All in all,it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday afternoon in Coleman — that is, it was until my father-in-law suddenly said, “Let’s gel in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria.”

I thought, “What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick?” But my wife chimed in with, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you, Jerry?” Since my own preferences were obviously out of step with the rest I re- plied, “Sounds good to me,” and added, “I just hope your mother wants to go.”

Some four hours and 106 miles later we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted. We sat in front of the fan for a long time in silence. Then, both to be sociable and to break the silence, I said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”

My wife looked shocked. “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. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in heat like that.”

we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temper- ature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafete- ria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. In fact, to be more accurate, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation simply didn’t make sense.

The Watergate break-in at the Democratic party’s national headquarter by the Nixon administration in the 1970s is given by Harvey as an example of an Abilene paradox. Indicted members of the administration expressed that they did not like the plans but wouldn’t go against the perceived certainty of the other group members.

People involved in an Abilene paradox generally do not like the decision and have more negative feelings about the outcome. This separates the Abilene paradox from groupthink. in which loyalty to the group prevent members from expressing descent or opposing opinions.


  1. Harvey, J. B. (1974). “The Abilene paradox: the management of agreement”. Organizational Dynamics. 3: 63–80

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