Abilene paradox

28.03.2015 |

Episode #9 of the course “Brain-twisting paradoxes”

The Abilene paradox is a study of group dynamics, similar to the psychology concept of groupthink. Created by Professor Jerry B. Harvey, the paradox uses a parable of a family who goes on a vacation that none of them actually wanted to take to illustrate the point. The parable goes like this:

A family is playing dominos on the porch during a hot Texas afternoon in the 1960s. The father-in-law suggests a road trip to Abilene (hence the name of the paradox), a town 60 miles to the north. Keep in mind that most cars did not have A/C in the 1960s.

The wife says, “Sounds good to me.” The husband has reservations because the drive would be so hot but assumes his thinking must be off base because his wife and father-in-law have already expressed a desire to go. So he agrees, but suggests his mother-in-law might not want to go. The mother-in-law also agrees to go too, however.

They take the long, hot, and miserable trip and none of them enjoy themselves. Upon returning home exhausted later that day, one by one, they admit they didn’t want to go. The mother-in-law says she only agreed to go since the other three were so enthusiastic, the husband says he was only trying to satisfy the others, the wife says the same, and the father-in-law says he only brought the idea up in the first place because the others looked bored.

A common phrase relating to the Abilene paradox is a desire not to “rock the boat.” The paradox is often used to help explain extremely poor group decisions. For example, Harvey cited the Watergate scandal as a potential instance of the Abilene paradox in action.


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