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The Abilene Paradox

abilene paradox image
The Abilene Paradox, photo by afcea.org

The Abilene paradox is a collective fallacy in which a group of people makes a decision that no member of the group would make individually.1

It was first formulated in 1974, by Jerry B. Harvey, in an article entitled “The Abilene Paradox: The management of the Agreement”.2 Harvey was a professor of management at Georgetown University, but also worked as a consultant for various companies and institutions.

During his career, he published more than 50 academic articles3 and two books, including one just on the Abilene paradox4.

The Abilene paradox takes its name from the Texas town of Abilene, where Harvey set the story he used, in management classes, to explain the concept.

Table of Contents

The story used by Harvey to explain the Abilene paradox

road to abilene
Road to Abilene

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 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 afternoon5.

Examples of the Abilene paradox in everyday life

If there is a recognized leader in the group

abilene paradox at work (image)
Photo by Sebastian Hermann on Unsplash

The typical example of the Abilene paradox in action concerns the business world (not coincidentally, Harvey was in management).
The manager calls a meeting, proposing his new idea to the team. He is not convinced, but sees competitors adopting similar strategies.

If he decided to discard the idea, but it turned out to be advantageous to the competitors, he would be forced to adopt it later, with delays due to staff training that would widen the competitive gap. Therefore, he wants to communicate a meeting where he will try to get something approved that he does not agree with.

The team members, for their part, realize that the idea will lead nowhere, but, in order not to contradict the manager, they simulate enthusiasm and the idea is ready to go, although no one, individually, agrees.

If there is no recognized leader

The Abilene paradox also applies in situations where there are no power roles, but all members of a group count equally. The story told by Harvey falls into this category. Not contradicting the partner, or refusing to disappoint the family members, are all possible geneses of the paradox.

Causes of the Abilene paradox

causes of abilene paradox (image)
Photo by Monstera Production on Pexels

According to Harvey himself, the Abilene paradox has nothing to do with conflict management, but concerns agreement management. In fact, conflict occurs when two parties disagree, whereas in Abilene’s paradox, they have not yet expressed any opinion and, therefore, there cannot yet be disagreement.

If there is an underlying emotion to this behavior, it is certainly fear.

Expressing one’s opinion can get more than one person into trouble because, potentially, it exposes one to the risk of rejection.
The human being is a social animal. He instinctively seeks the consent of his peers, and does not necessarily take advantage of it: social inclusion is a need itself. Sometimes, the certainty of being accepted by the group is worth more than the desire to impose oneself.
Underlying this mechanism are biological reasons:

1. We tend to remember negative events much better than positive ones

Because a rejection, denial, or objection is categorized as a negative memory, the brain thinks twice before subjecting itself to such stress.
This happens because:

  1. Positive and negative memories are processed by two different areas of the brain. Specifically, it is the limbic system that is responsible for the formation of new memory traces. In a 2016 experiment, rats activated two different areas of the amygdala, one of the nuclei of the limbic system, if they had to store a mating or electrical discharge in memory6
  2. Generally, negative emotions take longer to process and, as a result, generate more thoughts than positive ones7

2. Disagreeing is an unpleasant experience

Disagreeing with the majority increases the activity of the amygdala, a region that, in humans, is the main seat of fear.8

Those who stray from the group experience higher levels of stress than those who conform to norms. This is another obstacle to freely expressing one’s opinions.

right and left amygdala (image)
Right and left amygdala

3. Those who jeopardize group identity are often rejected

Groups function by mutually nurturing members’ sense of belonging through the adoption of shared conduct and values. Examples are clubs and associations, which always arise around common interests.

All this reinforces the identity of the individuals who are members. By questioning part of the rules that govern the balances, you not only question your own identity, but also others’. In other words, by stating my opinion, not only I force myself to feel the pain we already discussed about, but, indirectly, also other group members are condemned to feel the same, without making any request for it. Therefore, not accepting determinant rules increases the likelihood of rejection.

Moreover, this mechanism also explains the initiation tests that some contexts require to enter, such as American colleges. After the real humiliations freshmen are subjected to in order to get in, very few have the courage not to comply!

The Abilene paradox: 2 tips for increasing your self-imposition

If expressing yourself is not always a winning choice, never doing so can lead to even worse consequences. Often, people who find it difficult to state their opinion are the same for it is difficult to say no.
Giving up one’s assertion, and pandering to others for fear of rejection, inevitably leads to suppression of free self-expression. If I do not feel free to experience my emotions spontaneously, I will necessarily bind them to certain behaviors, which will depower them: in the long run, it is a strategy that is unlikely to bear good fruit.

Here are two insights for escaping the Abilene paradox:

1. Keeping a diary

writing a diary (image)
Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

Among other things, a diary is useful because it allows you to keep track of positive and negative events in equal measure9.

We have already seen how we tend to remember negative happenings much more easily: putting in writing what good things our actions have generated allows us to reinforce the positive memory associated with them, giving us more confidence for the next times when an uncomfortable decision is needed (such as, for example, saying out loud what you think)

2. Starting from simpler situations

The Abilene paradox does not, as mentioned above, arise in situations of conflict, but during agreements. However, there are situations in which the risk of resulting in conflict is greater than in others. For example, when it is not you who is proposing determinate ideas to a group: if you disagreed, and stated so, then you would run the risk of coming into adversarial conflict with the other person. We are not yet in a conflict (people should have the maturity to understand the difference between a criticism and a remark), but from here it is easier for the other part to resent.

Much easier, instead, is to be the one to propose in the first instance. That way, it is the others, eventually, who have to refute. It can be a great exercise to start saying aloud ideas that really represent us, without the fear of being judged. If you have been in a group for a while, you will be surprised how positively they will perceive the change. “Really? You’ve never proposed anything before.”
This is a kind of Abilene paradox in reverse: we all admire confident people who state what they think with respect for others, but no one wants to tell you for fear of hurting you!

References

  1. Wikipedia, The Abilene Paradox ↩︎
  2. “The Abilene paradox, the management of the agreement”, Jerry B Harvey ↩︎
  3. globalro.org, Jerry B Harvey ↩︎
  4. Google Books, “The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management“, Jerry B Harvey ↩︎
  5. You can find the full version of the story in the former article, “The Abilene Paradox, the Management of the Agreement” ↩︎
  6. Antagonistic negative and positive neurons of the basolateral amygdala, Kim et al, Nature Neuroscience, 2016 ↩︎
  7. Google Books, “The man who lied to his laptop: what machines teach us about human relationships“, Clifford Ivar Nass and Corina Yen ↩︎
  8. The neuroeconomist Gregory Berns found out this in his studies about removal from the majority ↩︎
  9. The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work“, Teresa M. Amabile and Steve J. Kramer, Harvard Business Review Press, 2011 ↩︎

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