Are We Living The Abilene Paradox?

Are We Living The Abilene Paradox?

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“If we have an endless number of individual minds who are weak, meek, submissive and impotent – who renounce their creative supremacy for the sake of the “whole” and accept humbly the “whole’s” verdict – we don’t get a collective super-brain. We get only the weak, meek, submissive and impotent collective mind.”
Ayn Rand

Have you ever been in a meeting, and agreed with the group because you thought it’s what the others wanted? Has concern about standing out as a lone voice ever led you to say ‘yes’ to a group decision when ‘no’ was your own personal response?

One of the few things that I really remember from my time at university is a lecture entirely devoted to the Abilene Paradox. This is where a group of people decide together on an action that is contrary to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group. Each member mistakenly believes that their own thoughts are contrary to the group’s, and therefore does not object. The basis of the Abilene paradox is a desire not to rock the boat. The older I get, the more I can relate it to the problems we have with society as a whole.

Management expert Jerry B. Harvey introduced The Abilene Paradox in his article of the same name. Its title comes from an anecdote he used to describe the paradox about his family deciding to take a trip of 53 miles to Abilene, in Texas, for dinner. After a most unsatisfactory time, when they get back they each confess that none of them had wanted to go – but they went because each thought the others wanted to.

Groupthink is a theory of social conformity and influence stating that humans are often averse to acting contrary to the group. The Abilene Paradox is related to this and explains the problems of groups agreeing in social contexts. The theory is often used to help explain poor business decisions, especially the concept of ‘decision by committee.’ It’s a common problem, and the reason some efforts fail in organisations. An inability to cope with agreement, rather than conflict, is key to organisational dysfunction. Ask each other, ‘Are we going to Abilene?’ to decide if a decision is really the group’s members wish, or a result of groupthink.

Consider this paradox in your day-to-day dealings at home, at work, or in the world – when you’re with your family, or in wider society as a whole. Do you agree with certain things for an easy life, or go along with what you think the majority believes? Or do you consider each person’s true feelings, or make a stand for yourself?

We only have to look at the epidemics of depression, obesity, youth disengagement or consumerism to understand that something is fundamentally wrong in the western world. Why aren’t we doing something great to resolve these issues? Are we so resistant to change? Why does society defend the status quo?

Conforming to what you think society expects of you is essentially groupthink. Do you dare to be different?

When I ask business owners what they want most out of life, what do you think they say? Mostly, they want simple, happy lives. Yet the majority of them don’t walk that talk – instead, acting out their long-term business strategies to create maximum growth to earn as much money as possible, and working at a frenetic pace that takes them far from their ideal of simple happiness.

When I ask parents what they want for their children, they say they want them to be happy. Yet they browbeat them to work hard, pass exams, get jobs, get promotion, get money. And so the cycle perpetuates itself!

But we can change that. Are you on the way to Abilene? Just do a quick check, in all aspects of your life: work, family, friends, leisure. Ask yourself these two questions:

● Are you true to yourself?
● How can you live in accordance with your own values for an even better life?

It’s important to answer these questions honestly, and to feel fine about being an individual. Everyone used to think the world was flat. Anyone thinking otherwise was crazy, until someone stood up for a different belief, and managed to prove otherwise. Maybe we are wrong about the ways we do things now. Are we all agreeing to things we don’t really want to do? Agreeing to the common way, instead of something radically different?

So, let’s all learn from the Paradox. Question the way we live, and question the society that we live in. Speak your true mind. Live the way you really want to live, and dare to be different.

It might just be the way that everyone else wanted to live – if they’d been honest with themselves in the first place.

Let me know if reading this has made a difference to your thinking. If you know someone who could use this too, please share it with them.

If the above topic, or indeed any of my blogs are of interest to you, then contact me and let’s talk! Drop me an email at

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add a comment
  1. You wznt your child to be taken care of whnile at
    school. I’d say that’s a bit oof a stretch, not to mentikon a lot to live up
    to, bbut I still like the name. Sincce the pencils
    will have their name onn them, the child will eel more like
    using them to prwctice their writing with.

  2. Albert Clement deSouza says

    we need guts to express openly what we really feel on certain issues.Avoid easy conformity. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat

  3. Adesh Narain says

    This is exactly what happens in most cases, and it’s usually the unpopular one who is the one who speaks out to the annoyance of others who may wish to ignore an important aspect of the overall circumstances that may seem otherwise uncomfortable for a group to openly acknowledge & accept

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