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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 a family in Coleman, Texas, who made a fifty-mile trip to Abilene—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. 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 an anecdote to illustrate the paradox: A family in Coleman, Texas, is playing dominoes on the back porch when one of them suggests going to Abilene (53 miles to the north) for dinner. So they do it. But the drive is long, hot and dusty; the food isn't worth the trip. When they arrive home, exhausted and frustrated, one of them complains that they didn't want to go to Abilene in the first place, and only went along with the idea because everyone else was so enthusiastic. One by one, the rest of the family admit that they didn't want to go, either. Even the one 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, in order 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.

    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.

    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.
  • 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 & 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".
  • To Boldly Flee wound up being this behind the scenes. Everyone else did it because they wanted to humor Doug Walker, and Doug himself did it because he felt he needed to give his character The Nostalgia Critic a proper sendoff. The experience was so unpleasant that everyone involved swore never to do another special.