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What Is the Abilene Paradox?

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  • Written By: Kathy Heydasch
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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An Abilene Paradox occurs when a group of people make a decision to do something which is contrary to the inner desires of each member of the group. This occurs when communication fails miserably. Each member of the group thinks that his or her own opinion is somehow not worthy or is in contradiction to the other members of the group. Hence, a person does not say what he or she really thinks, and as a result, the group suffers as a whole.

A paradox is defined as a contradiction. The Abilene Paradox is so named because of the example used to describe the phenomenon by the originator of the theory, Jerry B. Harvey. In his 1988 book The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management, Harvey describes a group of people who decide to take a trip to Abilene, each going because he or she thinks the rest want to go. In fact, none of them want to go.

The theory behind the Abilene Paradox can best be described by psychologists and social scientists as a form of groupthink. This occurs when members of a group tend to avoid rocking the boat, so to speak, and reach a consensus that may or may not represent the ideals or opinions of each member. Groupthink generally results in poor or hasty decisions, since no one wants to critically analyze another's opinion or statement.

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In management applications, the Abilene Paradox is used as an instructional tool. There is even a short teaching video which outlines the crux of the Abilene Paradox and is used in some management seminars. Basically, it suggests that members of a group need to manage their agreements just as much as their disagreements. It teaches that in any type of committee, before any decision is made, members of the group should ask each other “Are we going to Abilene?” in an attempt to make sure that the decision is based upon actual opinions and not just a form of groupthink.

Social conformity plays a large role in the Abilene Paradox. It is commonly understood among psychological experts that a person can make vastly different decisions when in a group than when he or she is left alone. The reasons are varied, but might include wanting to avoid confrontation or embarrassment. Many psychological studies are geared around determining how and why people make decisions, and how they vary within social settings.

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