Suppose you are with two of your friends, Laura and Jim, after a football game and want to decide on where to eat afterward. Laura suggests you go to Burger King; however, she doesn't like their burgers and only suggests it because she knows Jim likes their fries. Jim, though, already had two pounds of fries before the game, and the thought of eating another sickens him. Regardless, he says, "Yeah, Burger King sounds great!" Although you've been craving some KFC popcorn chicken, you don't want to disappoint your friends, so you exclaim, "Yeah, let's go to Burger King!"
But, wait. How come you collectively decided to go to Burger King if no one wanted to go? This social phenomenon can be explained by the Abilene paradox.
What is the Abilene paradox?
The Abilene paradox is a commentary on mob mentality developed by Jerry B. Harvey, an expert on management, in his book The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management. He uses an example of a family planning a trip to Abilene to prove his point:
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 trip to Abilene [53 miles north] 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 which 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.As you can see from Harvey's story, none of the family actually wanted to go to Abilene, but they did it anyway. Why? Much like our story of the three high school friends wanting to go out to eat, they all chose to do it because they were afraid that what they really wanted wasn't what the entire group wanted. Thus, out of a desire to keep the status quo, no one raised an objection. These victims of groupthink, so to speak, act to prevent "rocking the boat."
The implications of the Abilene paradox
Of course, the mob mentality of the Abilene paradox is quite visible in normal social settings. However, the paradox is commonly used to refer to actions taken in business. The groupthink that goes on in committees or meetings is certainly subject to the Abilene paradox. Individuals may be afraid of giving their own input because they think it's against what the group has already planned out. Thus, whole committees can essentially make a decision that was born out of the groupthink explained by the Abilene paradox. As a consequence, bad decisions are made, and the business falls victim to mob mentality.
The lesson to be learned? Be assertive.
After reading through a couple of examples of the Abilene paradox, the remedy to this strange consequence of groupthink is certainly assertion. While you should always be polite, if you don't want to do something, it probably wouldn't hurt to state your opinion. After all, there's a chance that everyone else is too afraid to say theirs. Not only could you make yourself happy, but you could make everyone else happy, as well, by eliminating the silence imposed by mob mentality.