The Abilene Paradox is a paradox in which the limits of a particular situation force a group of people to act in a way that is directly the opposite of their actual preferences. It is a phenomenon that occurs when groups continue with misguided activities which no group member desires because no member is willing to raise objections. It was observed by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1988 book The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management. The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote in the book which Harvey uses to elucidate the paradox:
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 away) for dinner. The wife says, "Sounds like a great idea." Although he has reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinking that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group the husband 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. 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.
The phenomenon may be a form of groupthink. It is easily explained by social psychology theories of social conformity and social cognition which suggest that human beings often feel great disincentives to acting in a manner contrary to the trend of the group. Likewise, it can be observed in psychology that indirect cues and hidden motives often lie behind peoples' statements and acts, frequently because social disincentives may exist which preclude individuals from openly voicing their feelings or pursuing their desires.
This anecdote was also made into a short film for management education. The theory is often used to help explain extremely poor business decisions, especially notions of the superiority of "rule by committee." A technique mentioned in the study and/or training of management, as well as practical guidance by consultants, is that group members, when the time comes for a group to make decisions, should ask each other, "Are we going to Abilene?" to determine whether their decision is legitimately desired by the group's members or merely a result of this kind of groupthink.