Article — January 6, 2017 — organization, trust
The Abilene paradox is a nasty little story that neatly describes a phenomenon where groups make collective decisions that every individual member of the group may be opposed to. This phenomenon is a global epidemic.
The paradox goes like this:This is copied from Wikipedia, which copied it from a 1974 article by Jerry B. Harvey. It’s worth copying.
On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”Take a moment to imagine yourself in the roles of each of these characters. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ve almost certainly been in situations like this, much more often than you’d like. You actually don’t want to go to Abilene. Why do you lie?
The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.
One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.
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.
If you tilt your head the right way,And you know game theory. you might notice this is a grown-up version of the prisoner’s dilemma.Instead of being a competitive two-player game, the Abilene paradox represents a massively multiplayer cooperative game. That’s horrifyingly more complex. It’s a wonder we ever make good decisions, in groups. The fundamental question is the same: trust or fear?
If you choose trust, you speak the truth. Trust, in this sense, doesn’t necessarily mean you trust the others to respond well to this. It can mean you trust yourself to be unhurt, even if people say nasty things to you,Such as, “God, why do you always shit on all my ideas? You’re just like your mother.” or, even better, it can mean you trust that being hurt is a temporary state, and the world goes on.
One way or another, you communicate your genuine thoughts and feelings. Without that, there’s virtually no chance at all that we’ll arrive at a decision you’ll be happy with, in the end. And if you aren’t happy, chances are none of us are either.I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we all want the same things, and we want to help each other.
Most of us, most of the time, are choosing fear. This fact alone explains nearly all the harm we’ve done in the history of the species. The Abilene paradox can appear in any situation where two or more people make a decision together. This happens constantly, at all levels of society, everywhere on the planet. And every time we choose fear, in those moments, we act against what we all want. Sometimes subtly, and sometimes with egregious consequences.Every soldier who’s gone to war is intimately familiar with the Abilene paradox, by another name.
It’s the Abilene paradox that allows societies to be oppressive. It’s the reason democracy doesn’t work. Dictatorships couldn’t survive at all, without it, except for the very obviously benevolent ones.I can’t name any, off the top of my head, but I’m sure they must exist. It’s a big planet. It isn’t just something that pops up now and again, and makes our lives a little bit worse. It’s a permanent condition, worldwide.
We live in Abilene.
I propose we move somewhere else. The next time someone suggests doing the same old boring unhealthy immoral garbage yet again, don’t just go along with it for fear of rocking the boat. Flip your lid over it. Pitch a fit! Look at how the two-year-olds are doing it: do they accept it when you tell them to do crazy things like going to bed at eight sharp, not eating snacks, or putting on pants? Hell no! They freak out! They scream like mad.
That’s how we should all act.I mean: we should also listen. At some stage it’s appropriate to reason sensibly about the issue. Once your tantrum is understood, don’t just keep screaming. And when you see someone acting like that, please: respond to the message, not the performance. If I cry and you tell me to quit crying, or you say “It’s healthy to cry!” and then just keep on doing the thing that made me cry to begin with, or you refuse to engage with crybabies and ignore me altogether, I am apt to consider you a dishonest collaborator.This will make me more likely to keep my opinion to myself when similar situations arise in the future. And, if you’re paying attention: “to keep your opinion to yourself” is precisely the same as “to choose fear”.
First ask what I’m crying about. That’s the minimum. If you can’t choose trust, at least choose curiosity.
Maybe we won’t have a better idea than going to Abilene, after all. But if we voice our doubts about it, and we understand those doubts and take them seriously, at least we won’t blame each other for whatever happens afterward.
The art of reaching simultaneous agreement, in accord with the authentic voices of everyone involved, in conditions of limited time, incomplete knowledge, and imperfect communication, is the absolute most important skill you can learn today.