The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox

Abilene_paradoxThere is an interesting phenomenon in social psychology called pluralistic ignorance or the “Abilene Paradox”.  In short it is the reluctance people have to voice a minority opinion in a group, especially if they feel that they’re the only ones holding that opinion.

When a group seems to be set on a certain idea or action, people will often not voice their disagreement with it if they feel they are the only ones against the group’s position.  Often this is based on a completely incorrect assumption, because we can only know the position of the other people if they voice it, so if everyone else stays quiet, we assume that they’re in agreement with the group, although they may be making the same incorrect assumption that we are!  So everyone stays quiet, thinking they’re the odd one out and in the end we all end up enacting a decision we don’t agree with.

Professor Jerry Harvey, from the George Washington University was the first person the describe the Abileen paradox.  He relates a leisure trip which he and his wife and parents made in Texas in July, in his parents’ un-airconditioned old Buick to a town called Abilene. It was a trip they had all agreed to but, as it later turned out, none of them had wanted to go on. “Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go”…

This phenomenon occurs with disturbing regularity, Professor Jim Westphal, from the University of Michigan, did research into the occurance of this behavior among corporate board members on the boards of 228 medium-sized American public companies.  He collected data using a variety of databases and questionnaire and found out that often directors did not speak up against their company’s strategy, although they had serious concerns about it. They also greatly underestimated the extent to which their fellow directors shared their concerns! As a consequence, companies already underperforming companies persisted with their failing course of action and missed the opportunity to change their strategies.

I think the potentially serious ramifications of this phenomenon is quiet self-evident, for example, we’re doing quiet a lot of work in mine safety and if this behavior is prevalent in underground teams it could potentially lead to whole groups of people going into areas they feel are unsafe or engaging in unsafe practices that everyone is uncomforable with, but that no-one is willing to contest because they’re not willing to be the “lone voice” who disagrees with the apparent group decision. I wonder how many people have died, or are in prison because of this seemingly stupid behavior that we all seem to engage in at one time or another?

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