The Abilene paradox


We were sitting around the office with an old pal the day after the Town Council voted, 3-2, to move ahead on creating the tourism-based Business Improvement District (TBID).

At the core of the discussion was not whether it was a good idea or a bad one, but rather the very nature of how groups of well-meaning people can make really bad decisions from time to time.

Specifically, we were focused on Mayor Rick Wood’s opposition to the measure and his citations of ill-advised, but enthusiastic council decisions in the past.

Those ranged from the proposal to red-tag the entire Sierra Valley sites (the so-called Ghetto) as a blighted area; various aspects of the Intrawest development; and most recently, the whole-hearted blessing to move ahead with the condo development at the airport, which almost landed the town in municipal bankruptcy court.

“Those all are examples of the ‘Abilene paradox,’’’ our friend declared.

The Abilene paradox, as we later learned, is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decides on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many of the individuals in the group.

It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that his or her individual preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections.

The Abilene paradox was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his article, “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.”

The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote in the article that Harvey used to elucidate the paradox:

On a hot afternoon in Coleman, Tex., a family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene, 53 miles to the 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 that none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit at home on the porch, comfortably playing dominoes, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Is our Town Council in a constant state of Abilene paradox? We’re certainly not at all ready to say that it is. 

On the other hand…