“The Abilene Paradox:” Saying “Yes” when You’d Rather say “No”

The other day we saw how Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments, showed that people will deny what they see with their own eyes when under social pressure.   But what happens if the group pressure is not flatly stated, but only perceived  pressure?  Pretty much the same thing.   Watch the clip below of “The Abilene Paradox,” an organizational  training film based on the book by Jerry B. Harvey, professor of management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Professor Harvey was trying to figure out why organizations so often ended up making decisions against their own self interest. Click here for a link to his book about this, which is a parable based on his own personal life experience.  His experience was a very uncomfortable family trip 50+ miles away in a hot car in the blazing hot 100+ degree Texan heat just to have supper at a cafeteria in Abilene that no one felt like going to.  The father only made the suggestion because he assumed that’s what everyone else wanted to do. He had no interest himself.  But they, in turn, assumed this was his wish and so all voiced agreement when not a single one of them wanted to go.  You’ll see a couple of other examples in the trailer.  A research and development guy who’s been tasked with “Project X:” making jet fuel out of peanut oil; and a young man and woman at the altar who don’t really want to get married to one another.

So when we do not want to embark on a course of action, why do we so easily agree to do so? And why don’t we at least communicate our disagreement?  Seems we just don’t want to rock the boat. Jerry Harvey’s conclusion is that human beings are always trying to spare themselves the pain of “anaclitic depression” or separation anxiety: Feeling cast out, unwanted, isolated.  It’s as though we’re always in survival mode when these defenses kick in.

The irony is that the human fear of social isolation runs so deep that we will navigate a huge portion of our lives around it and constantly make assumptions — often false — about what other people believe without really knowing.  In fact, you can know someone for years thinking they disagree with your views only to find out later he was on board with you with just about every issue.  But we never know if we don’t talk to people.  Do we?

Instead of acting on our assumptions , we ought to verify those perceptions more often.

The Abilene Paradox is another good lesson about how political correctness uses this human weakness.  By reinforcing this fear of isolation, people are less likely to get to know one another and exchange ideas.  Political correctness promotes this isolation so that open communication doesn’t get in the way of pushing PC agendas, and more folks can be nudged into agreement despite any misgivings they may have.

Print Friendly