Abilene paradox

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Abilene paradox is a collective fallacy, in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of most or all individuals in the group, while each individual believes it to be aligned with the preferences of most of the others.[1][2] It involves a breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group's, and therefore does not raise objections, or even states support for an outcome they do not want.

A common phrase related to the Abilene paradox is a desire to not "rock the boat". Like in groupthink, group members jointly decide on a course of action that they would not choose as individuals. However, while in groupthink, individuals undergo self-deception and distortion of their own views (driven by, for example, not wanting to suffer in anticipation of a future they sense they cannot avoid by speaking out), in the Abilene Paradox, individuals are unable to perceive the views or preferences of others, or to manage an agreement.[3]


The term was introduced by a management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article "The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement".[3] The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote that Harvey uses in the article 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 [50-mile (80-km)] 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 that 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 Abilene Paradox consists of five components:[4]

  1. The first component refers to mutual agreement of a group that the current situation is not acceptable. However, on the individual level, the members may be satisfied with the existing setting after they have compared it with proposed alternatives.
  2. The second component stands for ineffective communication within the group when several members express considerable support for a decision because they assume that is the desire of others. This process of communication reinforces assumptions that individual thoughts are a minority in the group.
  3. The third component of the Abilene Paradox is the vocalisation of group sentiment which arose from inaccurate assumptions or incorrect interpretation of the "signals" given by other members.
  4. The fourth component refers to the decision-maker's reflections on the actions taken, usually in the form of questions as follows: "Why did we do this?", "How can we justify our decision to others?".
  5. The fifth component refers to the defeat of the group leader to poor decision making in order to avoid making similar decisions in the future. There are several factors that may indicate the presence of the Abilene Paradox in the decision-making process:[4]
  • Leaders who publicly do not fear the unknown. Such arrogance leads them to go along as they do not possess sufficient understanding of complex problems. Rather, they stick to the "that sounds good to me" attitude.
  • A group with no-conflict or no-debate type of decision-making. When such views are supported in the cohort, the lack of diverse opinions becomes the foundation for mismanagement of agreement. This can be visible by the emergence of the "I will go along with that" attitude.
  • Overriding leaders and a strong organisation culture. A strong leader and solid organisation may become a powerful asset, it may also intimidate other members of subordinates to the point of submission. This results in the inclination of supporting more dominant ideas.
  • Lack of diversity and pluralistic perspective in a group. Homogeneous groups tend to be conformal. Such groups tend to achieve consensus rather than searching for the "right" decision.
  • Recognition of a dysfunctional decision-making environment. Management in this environment has lost control, as the directional prerogative of management has succumbed to wanting to be liked by avoiding conflict.
  • The feeling of a "messiah" in the organisation and action anxiety on the part of management. When the group handles complex tasks, there is usually one person or a small cohort within the group who has required expertise to manage in this situation. As a result, there is a tendency to acquiesce to them.
  • The development of a "spiral of silence" in the organisation. The spiral of silence occurs when one's perception of the majority opinion in the organisation suppresses one's willingness to express any challenging opinion against the most visible point of view.[4]


Based on an online experiment with more than 600 participants, being prosocial and generally caring about the implications of one's actions on others (measured by the social value orientation measure) has been shown to increase the likelihood that an individual finds themselves in an Abilene Paradox with others, especially if they are not the first to have a say.[5]

The study at Makerere University Business School described the case of the Abilene Paradox in the process of decision-making in 2006: The institution was in a dispute with its parent institution, Makerere University, over its status as an independent university. A meeting of the MUBS Academic Staff Association (MUBASA) was called to discuss the issue, and the attendees voted to support MUBS council's decision to sue the Ministry of Education for interfering in a high court pronouncement. Each member of the association was to contribute towards the legal costs. By interviewing 68 employees, the researcher found that the majority of them never considered it a solution but thought that others strongly support the idea of starting the trial.[6]

Chen and Chang conducted a study about the effects, causes, and influences of the Abilene paradox, if any, on their elementary school; and this study involved twelve faculty members. Results of this Abilene paradox study showed a negative effect on the school’s operation, through poor communication, inadequate interaction, isolation, exclusion, and rising gossip.[7]

Applications of the concept[edit]

The theory is often used to help explain poor group decisions, especially notions of the superiority of "rule by committee". For example, Harvey cited the Watergate scandal as a potential instance of the Abilene paradox in action.[8] The Watergate scandal occurred in the United States in the 1970s when many high officials of the Nixon administration colluded in the cover-up and perhaps the execution of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. Harvey quotes several people indicted for the coverup as indicating that they had personal qualms about the decision but feared to voice them. In one instance, campaign aide Herbert Porter said that he "was not one to stand up in a meeting and say that this should be stopped", a decision that he attributed to "the fear of the group pressure that would ensue, of not being a team player".[8]

Another notable example of applying the Abilene paradox to the notorious real-world event can be seen during and in the aftermath of the 1989 United Kingdom Hillsborough tragedy and its cover-up by the authorities, which was characterised by individually hesitant, but otherwise compliant, government agents and the narrative and available information moulded and manipulated by the state.[9] The other frequently cited example is the case of Challenger disaster, thought in that case researchers use both the concepts of groupthink and the Abilene paradox as possible explanation of the events.[10]

The phenomenon of the Abilene paradox can also be used in information systems development, to conceptualise and operationalise the relationship between systems analysts, users, and other organisational stakeholders in situations of illusory agreement.[11]

Related concepts and explanations[edit]

Other theories add to the Abilene paradox’s explanation of poor decision-making in groups, notably, such phenomena as groupthink and pluralistic ignorance.

The concept of groupthink posits that individuals correctly perceive the preferences of others, undergo some form of motivated reasoning, which distorts their true preferences, and then willingly choose to conform; hence, they generally feel positively about the resulting group decisions.[12] The success of groupthink also hinges on the long-term homogeneity of the group, which seeks to keep that same cohesiveness and therefore to avoid all potential conflict.[13] However, while groupthink, to some extent, depends on the ability of individuals to perceive attitudes and desires of others, the Abilene paradox hinges on the inability to gage true wants and intentions of group members.[14]

The concept of pluralistic ignorance, on the other hand, is also defined as the situation where an individual underestimates the extent to which their views are shared by the other members of the group or organisation.[15] In some ways, pluralistic ignorance can be considered as a factor inciting situations where the Abilene paradox occurs — individuals’ inability to correctly estimate the share of potential supporters lead to the assumption of ‘the worst case scenario’ and in-advance mitigation of potential risks of dealing with the opponents. Some researchers consider pluralistic ignorance to be a wider-ranging concept: while both groupthink and the Abilene paradox are usually discussed as the detriments to successful group decision-making, pluralistic ignorance is sometimes evaluated neutrally.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McAvoy, John; Butler, Tom (2007). "The impact of the Abilene Paradox on double-loop learning in an agile team". Information and Software Technology. 49 (6): 552–563. doi:10.1016/j.infsof.2007.02.012.
  2. ^ McAvoy, J.; Butler, T. (2006). "Resisting the change to user stories: a trip to Abilene". International Journal of Information Systems and Change Management. 1 (1): 48–61. doi:10.1504/IJISCM.2006.008286.
  3. ^ a b Harvey, J. B. (1974). "The Abilene paradox: the management of agreement". Organizational Dynamics. 3: 63–80. doi:10.1016/0090-2616(74)90005-9.
  4. ^ a b c Harvey, Michael; Buckley, M. Ronald; Novicevic, Milorad M.; Halbesleben, Jonathon R.B. (2008). "The Abilene Paradox After Thirty Years: A Global Perspective". IEEE Engineering Management Review. 36: 43. doi:10.1109/emr.2008.4490138. S2CID 38801567. Retrieved 24 December 2023.
  5. ^ Flores, Lia; Mannahan, Rachel; Sohn, Jinyeong (2023). "The Abilene Paradox: The Curse of Caring Too Much". SSRN 4406948.
  6. ^ Bagire, Vincent Amooti (1 December 2010). "Pretended Agreement in Decision Making: Exploring the Abilene Paradox in Uganda". Journal of Management Policy and Practice. 11 (5): 106–113.
  7. ^ 陳成宏; 張文權 (16 November 2018). "組織防衛:國民小學學校行政決策中「艾比林弔詭」之探討" [Organizational Defense: A Study of 'The Abilene Paradox' in Elementary School Administration Decision-Making]. 學校行政 (118): 85–110. doi:10.6423/HHHC.201811_(118).0006. ProQuest 2160689087.
  8. ^ a b Harvey, Jerry (Summer 1988). "The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement". Organizational Management. 17 (1). American Management Association: 19–20. doi:10.1016/0090-2616(88)90028-9.
  9. ^ Montgomery, Anthony (2022). "Concerted Collusion: Studying Multiagency Institutional Cover-Up". Frontiers in Psychology. 13. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2022.847376. PMC 9244796. PMID 35783708.
  10. ^ Dimitroff, Robert D.; Schmidt, Lu Ann; Bond, Timothy D. (June 2005). "Organizational Behavior and Disaster: A study of conflict at NASA". Project Management Journal. 36 (2): 28–38. doi:10.1177/875697280503600204. S2CID 115872990.
  11. ^ Browne, Glenn J.; Appan, Radha; Safi, Roozmehr; Mellarkod, Vidhya (December 2018). "Investigating illusions of agreement in group requirements determination". Information & Management. 55 (8): 1071–1083. doi:10.1016/j.im.2018.05.013. S2CID 53237080.
  12. ^ Ronald R. Sims (1 January 1994). Ethics and Organizational Decision Making: A Call for Renewal. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 55–56. ISBN 978-0-89930-860-9.
  13. ^ Turner, Marlene E; Pratkanis, Anthony R (February 1998). "Twenty-Five Years of Groupthink Theory and Research: Lessons from the Evaluation of a Theory". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 73 (2–3): 105–115. doi:10.1006/obhd.1998.2756. PMID 9705798. S2CID 15074397.
  14. ^ Halbesleben, Jonathon R.B.; Wheeler, Anthony R.; Buckley, M. Ronald (23 January 2007). "Understanding pluralistic ignorance in organizations: application and theory". Journal of Managerial Psychology. 22 (1): 65–83. doi:10.1108/02683940710721947.
  15. ^ Zhu, David H.; Westphal, James D. (2011). "Misperceiving the Beliefs of Others: How Pluralistic Ignorance Contributes to the Persistence of Positive Security Analyst Reactions to the Adoption of Stock Repurchase Plans". Organization Science. 22 (4): 869–886. doi:10.1287/orsc.1100.0575. JSTOR 20868901. S2CID 30377299.
  16. ^ Halbesleben, Jonathon R.B.; Wheeler, Anthony R.; Buckley, M. Ronald (23 January 2007). "Understanding pluralistic ignorance in organizations: application and theory". Journal of Managerial Psychology. 22 (1): 65–83. doi:10.1108/02683940710721947.

Further reading[edit]

  • Harvey, Jerry B. (1988). The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books. ISBN 0-669-19179-5
  • Harvey, Jerry B. (1996). The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management (paperback). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-0277-2
  • Harvey, Jerry B. (1999). How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back, My Fingerprints Are on the Knife?. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-4787-3

External links[edit]