The Abilene Paradox
July 21, 2003 3:15 AM   Subscribe

The Abilene Paradox: A sunny afternoon, a family playing cards on a terrace. One of them thinks they should move - not that he cares, on the contrary, but he thinks the others want to - so he proposes a trip to Abilene. No fun, hot, bad food. Back home one of them admits that he had preferred to stay home. Everybody would have liked that, only they did not admit to it when it was still time to enjoy the afternoon.
Everyone talks about free speech, but it's surprising how few people (even its most vociferous defenders!) realize why it's so important. The Abilene Paradox -- which describes in familiar terms how entire groups can be motivated to act contrary to their own wishes -- can only occur when communication breaks down...or is broken down. Just a bit of pragmatism to start your day.
posted by effugas (8 comments total)
To solve this problem, Preferential Voting should be used
They forgot about the "donkey vote", where large proportions of the voting public simply mark the ballot form from 1 to whatever in order. This has the effect of making the ballot for the order of names on the ballot forms seem almost as important as the "real ballot". The problem is accentuated by the compulsory voting practiced here in Australia, forcing people to turn up and either vote for anyone or cast an informal vote to avoid paying a fine.

The whole issue of a group being motivated against their own will is quite interesting and you see it a lot in social groups where everyone is trying to fit in with the group and second-guesses what the other group members want in order to be seen to want the same things. People are strange.
posted by dg at 4:35 AM on July 21, 2003

Better known to psychologists as Pluralistic ignorance*:

Groups all have norms of attitude and behavior which are shared and which help form the identity of the group. Adopting these norms, even if you do not agree with them, is a part of the individual sacrifice that people accept as a price of group membership. It is thus possible for groups to have norms which hardly anyone agrees with, but with which everyone conforms . . .
See also: Bystander Effect, Groupthink, Hostile Media Phenomenon, Social Identity Theory, Social Norms

*Could it be that someone rechristened a well-known phenomenon in order to sell management books?
posted by dgaicun at 4:35 AM on July 21, 2003


Could it be that, like most things in life, the same concept was discovered by separate sciences, for different audiences?

Kind of like the battle between centralization vs. distribution, taking place across computer science, management, government, financial planning, etc.

posted by effugas at 5:14 AM on July 21, 2003

Metafilter: motivated to act contrary to your wishes.
posted by seanyboy at 5:45 AM on July 21, 2003

I lived in Abilene for 5 years. I, too, wish I hadn't gone.
posted by thatweirdguy2 at 6:28 AM on July 21, 2003

Lewis Lapham covers this subject very well in this month's Harpers.

Was is George Washington who said "like sheep to the slaughter..."?
posted by nofundy at 6:57 AM on July 21, 2003

I'm trying to think back on all the debates I've had with my friends about where we're going to go and what we're going to do. The current system works well, mostly. It works like this: somebody proposes something to do. Any individual can veto the proposal but not without a counter proposal. The activity ends up being the one there isn't any strong dissent over. But if the group is going to split on something the fault lines are out in the open.

This system is not without it's flaws and certainly wouldn't make a group immune from Abilene incidents. Most of the people in my group of friends are opinionated and willful. Our system assumes that nominations are earnestly meant by the proposer (although I know I've personally nominated stuff I know no one likes just to get the ball rolling).

It also assumes that there will be some dissent. The example of the Abilene paradox seems to assume that everyone will just magically go along with a half-hearted proposal to avoid conflict. That would just never happen in my group of friends no matter what.
posted by wobh at 8:18 AM on July 21, 2003

Reminds me of the bystander intervention experiments, especially the "smoke filled room" where despite the possibility of personal danger, only 10% of people would break out of what they thought was the norm and speak up!
posted by Pollomacho at 8:50 AM on July 21, 2003

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