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Abilene Paradox

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The Abilene paradox is a scenario where a group decides on a course of action that none of the individual members actually want.

Poor communication causes this. Individuals fail to say what they really want to do, resulting in an erroneous impression of what the group as a whole wants, and every person thinks that they're the only dissenter. So, whether out of misguided generosity or fear of the majority's wrath, no one speaks against the plan, and everyone winds up unhappy with the end result. Only after it's over do they realize that they Could Have Avoided This if someone, anyone, had just said what they really wanted.


The name comes from Jerry B. Harvey, who described the trope in 1974. His article "The Abilene Paradox" illustrated it with an anecdote about his family in Coleman, Texas, who made a hundred-mile trip to Abilene and back — only to realize afterwards that all of them would have preferred to stay home instead.

Subtrope of "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot, Poor Communication Kills, and Two Rights Make a Wrong. Compare with "Gift of the Magi" Plot and Milholland Relationship Moment, which ends in a similar way, but without the participants collaborating at all. Frequently occurs when the issue is Inherent in the System, as a bad bureaucracy can streamline the action without bothering to ask the motivation. Also compare with Outhumbling Each Other, where two people knowingly argue in favor of what the other wants.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • Shimanami Tasogare has a rather sad example. Seichirou, Tsaiko's gay partner of thirty years, is finally reconnecting with his adult son as he's dying on an illness. Tsaiko purposely spends less time with Seichirou and gives up his chance of staying at his deathbed to avoid meeting his son and risk their homosexuality causing tension between the two of them. Seichirou assumes that Tsaiko is ashamed and doesn't want his family to know about him, and so doesn't say that all he really wants is to keep the man he loves by his side until he dies.

    Fan Works 
  • Sword Art Online Abridged: After Kirito and Asuna's Relationship Upgrade, Asuna asks what happens next. Both halves of Kirito's brain start panicking until Left Brain tells Right Brain to say anything as long as it's said with confidence. Leading to Kirito saying "We should get married." Left Brain panics and screams at Right Brain, then says they'll pass it off as a joke. Cut to Asuna crying Tears of Joy and saying "Yes. Let's do it," ... before revealing she has the same issues.
    Asuna's Left Brain: Bitch, why the fuck did you say yes?!
    Asuna's Right Brain: I DON'T KNOWWWWWW!!!

  • The Trope Namer is Jerry B. Harvey's 1974 article, "The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement." He includes a personal anecdote to illustrate the paradox: He and his wife's family in Coleman, Texas, are playing dominoes on the back porch when his father-in-law suggests going to Abilene (53 miles north) for dinner. So, off they go. But the drive is long, hot, and dusty, and the food isn't worth the trip. When they arrive home, exhausted and frustrated, his mother-in-law complains that she didn't want to go to Abilene in the first place, and only went along with the idea because everyone else was so enthusiastic. Jerry and his wife admit that they didn't want to go, either. Even his father-in-law, who suggested it in the first place, only did so because he thought the others were getting bored with the dominoes game.
    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 Screwtape Letters: In "Letter 26", Screwtape suggests fostering exactly this sort of disagreement, to twist "unselfishness" into a way for humans to be selfish and hypocritical about it.
    When once a sort of official, legal, or nominal Unselfishness has been established as a rule [...] the most delightful results follow. In discussing any joint action, it becomes obligatory that A should argue in favor of B's supposed wishes and against his own, while B does the opposite. It is often impossible to find out either party's real wishes; with luck, they end by doing something that neither wants, while each feels the glow of self-righteousness and harbours a secret claim to preferential treatment for the unselfishness shown and a secret grudge against the other for the ease with which the sacrifice was accepted.
  • One of Dave Barry's columns had advice on how to find love via personal ad:
    [Your ad] should say you like "candlelight dinners and long walks on the beach". All personal classified ads contain this phrase, not because anybody really wants to take long walks on the beach, but because people want to prove they're Romantic and Sensitive. The beaches of America are teeming with couples who met because of personal ads, staggering along, sweating and picking sea-urchin spines out of their feet, each person afraid to reveal to the other that he or she would rather be watching a rental movie.
  • Late in Higurashi: When They Cry, it's revealed that, despite shunning the Houjou siblings (ostensibly because their parents betrayed the village), none of the people of Hinamizawa actually hate them. However, most of them (including the village leaders) believe that everyone else does and won't even say anything for fear of also being seen as traitors.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Big Bang Theory: In "The Comic-Con Conundrum", Leonard invites Penny to Comic-Con solely because he thinks she wants to go, and Penny accepts solely because she thinks Leonard wants her to come along. Both want the other to be happy, so it becomes an emotional Game of Chicken as neither wants to be the one to admit that they'd rather Penny not come.
  • In How I Met Your Mother, the episode "46 Minutes" has a discussion of "Early Relationship Chicken." According to Future Ted, it's the phase where both partners agree to every activity the other suggests, because they want to seem interesting, adventurous, and open-minded. This eventually leads to them getting roped into activities that neither of them wants, because they're afraid to be the first to say "No"—until one of them finally caves, much to the relief of both parties. In the episode itself, Kevin and Robin play Early Relationship Chicken, which leads to them birdwatching in Central Park, bungee jumping, and attending a butcher class before they come to their senses.
  • On Jane the Virgin, one episode has Petra invite Jane and her family to a Mother's Day brunch before Anezka throws a wrench into their friendship. Jane, her mother, and her grandmother don't want to do go because it interferes with their established traditions for Mother's Day; later, Jane and Petra fight on the phone due to poor communication, and both refuse to cancel because they want to seem like the bigger person. Rafael also doesn't feel like being there because of external problems, but all parties go for the sake of their large mixed family (it's a long story). This results in a lunch so awkward that the narrator invites the audience to make a Drinking Game out of it.

  • Mentioned in "I'm an Ordinary Man" from My Fair Lady as one of the reasons he's unmarried.
    Higgins: Make a plan and you will find, that she had something else in mind, and so rather than do either, you do something else that neither likes at all!

    Web Comics 
  • In Gunnerkrigg Court, Mort is stuck in one of these. The chapter "See Ya!" reveals he's been ready to move on to the Ether for some time, but he lingers as a ghost because he thinks the Realm Of The Dead gave him a "pretty important" job haunting the Court. But the ROTD is really just giving Mort busywork because they think he wants to stay.

    Western Animation 
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • In "Green Isn't Your Color", Fluttershy pretends to enjoy being a fashion model, despite her stage fright and overall discomfort at getting any attention, because of how much Rarity seems to support the idea. Meanwhile, Rarity is actually upset that her unfashionable friend is getting so much more attention than her, but acts extra happy and encouraging because she doesn't want her jealousy to bring down Fluttershy's moment. They have both also come clean to Twilight but because Twilight gave a Pinkie Promise to them that she wouldn't tell the other (a promise that Pinkie goes to Implacable Man levels of pursuit to enforce), she can't stop this mess herself.
    • In "Non-Compete Clause", Applejack and Rainbow Dash are placed in charge of a field trip, but have differing ideas of what to do. At first they try to do their own things, but after that goes terribly, Twilight threatens to take over the event herself if they can't work together. Instead both overcompensate and end up butting heads again, this time wanting to follow the other's ideas but not being able to agree.
  • In one episode of Mickey Mouse we have Mickey and Minnie on a date with matching sweaters that are really itchy. Mickey hate them, but doesn't want to hurt her feelings. At the end he admits that he cannot stand the sweaters, only for her to reveal that she also hates them but thought it would be romantic to wear them, so then both of them can get rid of the things.
  • The Powerpuff Girls: In the episode "Town And Out," the Powerpuff family moves to the town of Citysville for a new job offer, a better school and a chance to be superheroes in the big leagues. It sucks: the school picks on kid superheroes and doesn't let them leave in the middle of class, the citizens ignore anything above their newspapers, and the majority of the population don't even like living there to the point where they commute from far, far away (which gets worse when the Powerpuffs end up destroying a bridge which was its main source of commuting). The girls only stay because their father exuberantly claims to love the city. He doesn't; he eventually reveals that he hates working in a big underfunded lab where everyone is either envious or arrogant. It doesn't help that from our perspective of the girls' misadventures, Utonium is REALLY overselling it.
  • In Recess: Taking the Fifth Grade a Board of Education recently made some changes that make the kids lives worse (like changing cafeteria food for "nutrition paste" and getting rid of their playground). T.J. skips school to protest about it and convinces Principal Prickly to protest as well. After seeing the Principal risking his job, one member of the board confeses that he actually hates the changes that were made, but didn't want to go against the crowd, with the other members revealing the same feeling, and deciding to overturn the whole thing.
  • The Simpsons: In "Boy Scoutz N-the-Hood", Bart must invite Homer on a father-son river-rafting expedition. In a variation, Bart knows that Homer won't want to go, and Homer knows that Bart doesn't want him to go, but both of them independently decide to express interest and rely on the other to decline:
    Bart: [Through gritted teeth] Dad, I really want you to go on this expedition.
    Homer: [Through equally gritted teeth] Son, I'd be delighted to accompany you.
    Homer and Bart: [Simultaneously] D'oh!

    Real Life 
  • Jerry B. Harvey also speculated that the Watergate scandal was an Abilene paradox in practice. Of the members of Richard Nixon's administration who were indicted for the conspiracy, many of them testified after the fact that they had qualms about the entire operation. But they never voiced those concerns, for fear of what would happen if they weren't "a team player".


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