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Abilene Paradox

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"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!"
Professor Higgins, My Fair Lady

The Abilene paradox is a scenario where a group decides upon a course of action that none of the individual members actually want to do because they falsely assume the others want it.

Poor communication causes this. Individuals fail to say what they really want, 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 out 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 spoken up and said what they really wanted.


The trope name comes from Jerry B. Harvey, who described the paradox in 1974. His article "The Abilene Paradox" illustrated it with an anecdote about his family in Coleman, Texas. The family made a hundred-mile round trip from Coleman to Abilene and back, suffering through a miserable four-hour-long journey in Texas heat for bad food. It was only when the family got back to Coleman that they realized each individual family member would have preferred to stay home, but didn't say anything because they incorrectly assumed that everyone else wanted to go.

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 and Only One Finds It Fun for when one person genuinely enjoys something but they're alone.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • Our Dreams at Dusk has a rather sad example. Seichirou, Tsaiko's gay partner of thirty years, is finally reconnecting with his adult son as he's dying of 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.

    Comic Strips 
  • A variation of this trope keeps appearing in Beetle Bailey. It always goes like this: The officers, and sergeant Snorkel, receive a written order from the general, with one obvious spelling error that changes the meaning completely (tacks, not tanks, toot check, not tooth check, buns, not guns, etc.). Everyone knows that the general didn't mean to write this, and that he's probably completely oblivious of the spelling error, but everyone is afraid of upsetting him by pointing out the error to him (the exact words "But who dares to tell the general that he did a mistake?" are usually uttered at one point). To simply just ignore the mistake is apparently never considered an option, as this would technically be insubordination. In the end, they carry out the order, exactly the way it's written, even though they know that it makes no sense. Of course, this always upsets the general anyway, which makes one wonder why the officers thought this course of action was going to keep them out of trouble,

    Fan Works 
  • RWBY fanfic at least it was here: Pyrrha and Jaune break off their Friends with Benefits relationship because they both believe they are holding the other back, and that they deserve a real relationship. They are of course unaware that they are both madly in love with each other.
  • Sword Art Online Abridged subverts this and plays it for laughs. After Kirito and Asuna's Relationship Upgrade, Kirito says they should get married, to which Asuna agrees. However, it's clear through their internal monologues that both of them think getting married is a really bad idea. The reason they don't say anything is both Kirito and Asuna want the other to "blink" first and admit that they were wrong. It leads to an escalating war of I Know You Know I Know where they adopt a child, then buy an entire orphanage, then end up getting their charge killed after legitimately growing attached, all because they can't put their egos aside. When Kirito and Asuna do finally talk things out, they resolve the issue pretty quickly, lampshading how easy it was to solve the problem and that they're both morons for letting it get as far as it did.
  • Dragon Ball Z Abridged: On Namek, Krillin decided that he, Gohan and Vegeta should be called Team Three-star, which the other 2 begrudgingly went along with. Later, Gohan finally tells Krillin that he hates the name, to which he admits he hates the name too and only kept using it despite Vegeta's threats because he thought Gohan liked it.
  • Ah Ain't Got no Ack-cent!: When they get invited to the Equestrian Agriculture Conference and Exhibition, Rarity convinces Applejack to put on a posh Manehattanite accent to better fit in with the wealthy potential clients. AJ plays along and nearly lasts through the first day, but eventually decides she can't do it anymore, launching into a rant in her natural Southern accent. In response, all the wealthy ponies at the EACE drop their posh accents as well, revealing they normally sound just as "country" as AJ. Nearly everyone at the con had been putting on fake accents for fear of being the only one to stick out.
    "Th' Exhibition folks were all like me," the orange filly stated, her mind still reeling from the thought. "They all thought that if they went 'n spoke plain-like, they'd all git kicked out too. So they never said nothin' otherwise! And this's been goin' on fer so long... welp, it got kinda outta-hand, didn't it?" She turned to the brown stallion again, who only dipped his head once more with a sheepish expression.

    Film - Live Action 
  • While You Were Sleeping does this twice:
    • A mistaken identity plot results in Lucy getting engaged to Peter (who she's had a crush on for some time, but now she realizes he's nothing like she had imagined) while actually falling in love with his brother Jack. So the night before her wedding, Lucy asks Jack if he can think of any reason not to marry Peter, desperately hoping for an excuse to break things off and pursue a relationship with Jack instead. And Jack wants Lucy for himself just as badly, but says he can't think of any reason, because he thinks she really loves Peter.
    • Jack wants to start his own carpentry business, but is afraid to say anything because his father seems dead-set on him inheriting the family furniture business. When Jack finally does come clean, dad is only disappointed that Jack didn't say anything sooner: a few years back, he had turned down several offers to sell the furniture business because he thought Jack wanted to take over.

  • 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.
  • A New England Nun: Louisa, thinking about how marriage will change her quiet life, decides she would rather not marry, but she has no intention of breaking the engagement after Joe has waited fifteen years to marry her. She overhears Joe talking with Lily Dyer. Joe mentions some unexplained event which let slip his feelings for Lily, but, given that he's engaged to Louisa, he tells her nothing can come of it. Now aware of this, Louisa calmly tells Joe, without letting him know about the eavesdropping, that she's a little reluctant to change her way of life.
  • "The Awful Fate of Melpomenous Jones" by Stephen Leacock exaggerates it when the local vicar, having two weeks off, goes to visit some of his parishioners for an afternoon. Every time he says he should be leaving, they urge him to stay. He doesn't actually want to stay, drinking tea and looking at photograph albums, and in fact the family would like him to go as well, but both parties are trying to be polite. So he stays...and stays...and stays...until he goes mad and dies.
  • 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.
  • Played for Horror in The Mysterious Stranger, where it’s revealed that none of the villagers in Dung Ages Austria actually believe in witches, but they all allow witch hunts to happen because they are terrified that the rest of the village truly believes it and will assume that they themselves are witches if they defend the accused in any way, including by saying that witches don’t exist.
  • The Emperor's New Clothes is the Trope Codifier, to the point that the story is often referenced in cases of real-life pluralistic ignorance. In the story, two con men swindle countless riches out of a narcisistically dandy emperor by "making" him an "outfit" made of a "magical fabric" that they swear is invisible to those who are incompetent at their jobs. Obviously, the emperor and everyone in his court can't see anything. But because saying that they can't see the outfit means that they would have to admit to being incompetent, they all keep their mouths shut. The embarrassment comes when the emperor organizes a parade to showcase his "clothes", and a child bluntly asks his family why the emperor is naked. A child having no work or enough knowledge of the world to be considered "incompetent" at anything, he can only be right. "Pluralistic indifference" and collective pride is what drives everybody to keep saying there is an invisible fabric until there is no turning back. Had any of them actually spoken up, the con would have died early.
  • In the Discworld novel Thief of Time, an In-Universe version of The Emperor's New Clothes is mentioned. The paradox is not only enforced, it is brutally enforced. The kid may be innocent and the crowd now know that the emperor is embarrassing himself, but the emperor is surrounded by heavily-armed guards and this trumps a child's truth (and well-being) by a country mile.

    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. It only ends when Sheldon and Amy, who they individually confided in, talk to each other, realize what is going on, and subsequently tell the couple what they are too afraid to say to each other.
  • House, M.D.: The episode "Selfish" features a side plot in which an elderly son and his even more elderly father believe the other wants to continue living together. Both then bribe Dr. House to convince the other that the father must move into a lovely retirement home. At the end of the episode, House refunds them and reveals that both father and son can't stand another moment together.
  • 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.
  • Modern Family: In "Aunt Mommy", Phil and Claire are on a double date with Cam and Mitch. Drunkenly, the four of them decide Claire will donate and egg so the former couple may have a child who is both theirs genetically. The next day with clearly minds, and some family argument, they realise both couples view the idea as a playing God.
  • Murder, She Wrote:
    • "Corned Beef and Carnage": Howard and Victoria both secretly dislike her job with Mr. Kinkaid. However, neither has told the other, both because of a lack of personal time and because each thinks the other benefits somehow — Howard thinks his wife should get her shot at the big time, and Victoria wants to make enough money that her husband can continue his acting career. Jessica nudges them both towards confessing and they do eventually sort it out.
    • "Murder She Wrote S 4 E 19 Just Another Fish Story Just Another Fish Story]]": Grady and Donna both have false ideas as to what the other wants after they're married. Donna hates being an accountant and would prefer to give up her career to raise a family, but she thinks Grady won't like it, because he's been so gung-ho about her being a career woman. Grady confesses to Jessica that he'd actually rather have a wife who's a homemaker, but he hasn't told Donna because he doesn't want to hold her back. Donna ultimately breaks the silence.
  • 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.
  • In Peep Show, Mark invites a depressed Jez along as a third wheel on an early-days couples' weekend with Sophie. Their respective internal monologues reveal neither of them actually wants this, but Mark feels obliged to keep Jez company while he awaits medical test results, and Jez thinks Mark's inviting him for moral support because he's terrified of sex.
  • Zondag Met Lubach: Lubach describes strategic voting this way when it comes to Dutch politics. With a pluralistic parliamentary systemnote , Dutch voters tend to "vote their conscience", but in 2012 voters consolidated behind the right-wing Liberal Party (VVD) and the left-wing Labour Party (PvdA) for fear that the other party would win. The result: both parties gained so many seats that they formed an alliance after the election and shut out all smaller parties. Lubach compares this to choosing what's for dinner between item 1 and 2 by going along with everyone else and going for item 1 because you really don't want item 2, when in fact you would have preferred item 3.
  • British comedy/drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet has this occur when the group are trying to decide on what colour to paint a room, and as an experiment they try to use Proportional Representation as a way to democratically vote on the best outcome. It backfires when the winning colour - Yellow - is NO ONE'S first or second choice and comes out as the winner just because everyone picked it as their third option, which they didn't believe would make a difference to the outcome.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: Crusher makes elaborate breakfasts for her regular meals with Picard, but when they suddenly gain the ability to read each other's mind, she discovers that Picard would much rather just have coffee and a croissant. She's been slaving away at new recipes because she was under the impression that he has exotic tastes, while he's been enduring her meals out of the same assumption about her.

  • 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!

    Video Games 
  • In Tales of Vesperia, you can get a special skit of Yuri suddenly complaining about a meal if you make it way too often. This is followed by each party member passing the blame onto the next person in line, until they all realize that none of them actually want the meal in question, and kept putting up with it because they assumed someone in the group had to really like the meal. The party immediately and unanimously agrees to make something different.

    Visual Novels 
  • 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.

    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.
  • Narrowly avoided in the "So a Date at the Mall" story of El Goonish Shive where Elliot and Ashley are discussing whether to eat immediately or to wait until later. Both of them are hungry, but let the other make the decision as to whether to eat immediately. They both assume the other isn't hungry and agree to delay eating. Thankfully a combined stomach growl gives them an excuse to do what they both want to do.

    Web Videos 
  • Zig-zagged in Sword Art Online Abridged. After they have sex for the first time, Kirito and Asuna have no idea what they're supposed to do next with this whole "relationship" thing. Because they're both young and highly traumatized. Kirito suggests they get married, and Asuna accepts- though neither have any idea why those words came out of their mouths. Following that, the two make increasingly questionable decisions because neither is willing to admit that they were wrong. This continues even after they both become aware of the situation. In order: they accept Heathcliff's orders to hang out on floor 22 because he calls it their honeymoon; they adopt Yui to make her a pawn; and they attempt to purchase an "orphanage" to further deflect. At the end of the episode, they have a very frank conversation where they admit that marriage was a bad idea, but they're both willing to stick with it. Then they both groan because they realize how easy that was.
    • Also played with in regard to Yui's "death": it turns out she was just trying to play a prank on her new parents, but because Kirito didn't know it, he accidentally trapped her in an And I Must Scream situation. Naturally, neither wanted that and it could've been avoided if Yui had just told them about her doubts- or if Kirito and Asuna had been more up front about their growing love for her.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Hey Arnold! episode, "Fishing Trip", Gerald, Sid, Harold, Eugene, their dads, Arnold, and his grandpa go camping in the woods for a fishing trip. Things quickly go south when they fail to catch any fish and lose the rest of their food to a bear (except for cans of beans). The boys and their dads/grandfather are all miserable, but both groups refuse to tell the other out of fear of disappointing them. After much suffering, they eventually come clean and go to a resort across the lake.
  • King of the Hill: Invokes it in the episode "Church Hopping", the family is left without their regular pew at their church. After a string of bad experiences, Peggy suggests they try the Megachurch and Hank refuses. Peggy then threatens an Abilene Paradox with the family living the "barren, empty lives of secular humanists".
  • 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 (1998): 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 confesses 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!
  • One episode of Regular Show has Muscle Man ask Mordecai and Rigby for their help since he's supposed to meet his girlfriend Starla's parents for dinner, but according to her, they're extremely sophisticated and he's worried that they'll disavow their relationship if he doesn't live to their standards. They do their best to make him look the part and try to educate him, but the latter doesn't work. Instead, Mordecai and Rigby pose as the group's waiters and feed him instructions via earpiece. However, the Maitre'd despises Muscle Man because he isn't really posh and sophisticated, so he has Mordecai and Rigby tied up and tests Muscle Man on his own on which spoon to eat dessert with, which he fails. A brawl ensues between the dinner group and the restaurant staff, which causes Starla's parents to drop the facade, revealing to Muscle Man that they acted posh to impress him and they're normally just like him.
  • This very nearly turns out to be the case in Steven Universe: Future when one of the Rose Quartzes misinterprets Steven's words as an invitation to live with him, and Steven finds himself unable to refuse. In the end, though, they all agree that they don't want to live in the same house and only agreed for each other's sake.
  • Happens in the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Bossy Boots", when Mr. Krabs' daughter Pearl works at the Krusty Krab during her summer vacation. Krabs eventually sees Pearl's frivolous spending on improvements for the restaurant as harmful, but he doesn't have the heart to fire her, then tasking SpongeBob to do it. However, before he can, Pearl reveals to SpongeBob that she didn't want to be there either, and was staying only to impress her dad. SpongeBob breaks the loop by "pretending" to fire her so he can take the heat from Krabs, which ends up pleasing all parties.

    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".
  • Happens in many workplaces, where the boss or supervisor is The Bully, or where the workplace is extremely competitive and political with coworkers turned against one another, or where rigid policies are in place. People become afraid to speak up about problems or own up to mistakes because they fear that the boss will try and "make an example of them" by firing or demoting them. "Just work culture" intends to correct this.
  • On January 27, 1986, a NASA shuttle called the Challenger was experiencing yet another delay due to technical problems. By the time it was ready for launch, high winds forced its cancellation, and freezing temperatures were expected overnight. As a precaution, NASA management instructed engineers to evaluate the impact of cold weather on the shuttle. No critical issues were reported back to management, because nobody wanted to be the one to delay the shuttle yet again, and incorrectly assumed that nobody else had found anything wrong. The following day, the shuttle launched, and exploded 73 seconds into the launch, killing everyone onboard.