The Road to Abilene

It was a hot, dry, sun-drenched afternoon in Coleman, Texas.  A family is playing dominoes on a steamy porch.  The father-in-law looks up and suggests that they get in the car and take a drive to Abilene which is 53 miles away.  One by one, the family members nod acquiescence.  They pile into the car.  The drive is hot.  Dusty.  And long.  The family arrives in Abilene.  They go to a diner where the food is as bad as the drive.  They get back in the car and take the same hot, dusty, long drive back to Coleman.  They arrive home exhausted.   

One by one, the family members admit that they never really wanted to go to Abilene.  They agreed to go because they thought the others wanted to go.  Thus – everyone decided to do something — that no one wanted to do . . . . . 

The “Abilene Paradox” was first introduced by Jerry B. Harvey in a 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox:  The Management of Agreement.”   The article suggests that individuals are normally averse to acting contrary to the inclinations of a group.  Social conformity and social influence — “peer pressure” — drive agreement.  The reservations one might have – with a decision or direction – is subsumed by the feeling that their concerns must be “out of step” with that of the group.  This leads to reluctant silence.  Grudging acquiescence.  And frequently poor decisions.  We see this in families.  Businesses.  Organizations.  And politics.

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