The Abilene Paradox and the Dangers of Assuming People Agree With You

The Abilene Paradox is a situation in which a group makes a decision that is contrary to the desires of the group’s members, because each member assumes the others approve of it.

It’s titled after an example used by Jerry B. Harvey to illustrate the concept. In his article, Harvey tells the story of a family sitting around on a hot Texas afternoon, where each member of the family agree to taking a trip to Abilene, a town 53 miles away, despite none of them actually wanting to go. Each person in the group assumed that the others wanted to go, so they agreed to the idea, and the group ended up taking a long and uncomfortable trip none of them really wanted to do.

  • A colleague invites you to their wedding, despite not wanting you there, because they think you want to attend. You attend, despite not wanting to, because you think they want you there.


  • In a meeting, a leader suggests a new wellbeing initiative they think the others will like, they actually think it’s a bit stupid but it will make them look good. Each member has misgivings about this and thinks it’s a distraction, but assumes that the others will consider them negative if they speak out, so everyone approves the idea despite everyone thinking it is a lousy thing to do.

The Abilene Paradox: our organisations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do, and defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve.

Talking of paradox, in the same week that Rishi Sunak announced a fairly tame watering down of the UK steps to reach net zero I was passing through numerous airports in Asia – and I’ve never seen them so busy. Seemingly, there is outright ‘fury’ when someone says we might be going a little too fast on carbon reduction, but at the same time our airports get busier at the same time we all agree we should be flying less. What is going on?

The balance between human quality of life and environmentalism is a delicate one. I’ve seen first hand the near destruction of Maya Bay in Thailand by over-tourism, but equally I’ve seen the immiseration of working people’s lives in Sri Lanka through the pursuit of environmental zealotry.

My colleague Mark Willis recently posted on LinkedIn an excellent question: was delaying net zero targets a cynical political ploy or stark realism? I’d urge you to read his full post but he concludes:

“If Sunak generates a constructive national debate of net zero implications and cost burdens, then it could be a force for good that will transcend his premiership. If it descends into a blame game of potential tax increases of future governments, then it is wasted time we can ill afford, and damaging to the prospects of politics and the planet.”

I commented that it could be a cynical political ploy AND stark realism. But Mark is spot on – he’s an economist so takes a dispassionate macro view, and dispassionate macro views are exactly what problems like climate change need.

When I was researching Bromford’s response to climate change I found it a huge education – but also realised that most people (myself included at the time) didn’t even understand what terms like net zero or carbon neutrality meant , let alone could grasp the changes people would need to make to achieve the target. Even people who did understand that massively underestimated the sheer innovation that would be needed to make living in 2050 bearable.

The easiest way a housing provider could limit carbon emissions is to simply stop building and maintaining homes, thereby negating a core purpose. Clearly we aren’t going to do that, so what would be a sensible approach? We took over 12 months to have a debate and educate ourselves before making any decisions.

Nationally we have had no such debate, therefore we don’t have anything like consensus on what a sensible approach would be.

This is not a post denying climate change, which is a very real and serious problem. It’s a post about how we need to avoid assuming consensus exists even when there appears to be almost complete consensus.

Apart from a few lunatics, everyone wants to save the planet, everyone can see we need to do something.

However people will agree to anything if it makes them look good and doesn’t cost anything. That’s not a good indicator of consensus. And misunderstanding consenus is a barrier, not an accelerator, to innovation, because it means ideas and change don’t take hold and spread.

With net zero we need to see a huge innovation in technology of the like we saw during the industrial revolution. And that comes with a seismic cost. As Peter Zeinhan observes here “financing Greentech projects requires a boatload of upfront capital, and if the cost of that capital rises, the viability of those projects has the inverse effect. This means the Greentech space will be in hot water even if economic growth holds steady.”

Additionally , politicians and bureaucrats have a frankly appalling record of predicting which technologies and innovations will thrive and become successful. And remember that diesel was the dream fuel, promoted by governments and the car industry as a cheaper way to save the planet.

The current technologies aren’t easy enough, spreadable enough or cheap enough to get people to change their lifestyles.

Seismic cost = seismic behaviour change.

One of the problems with any sort of behaviour change is people will almost always agree that we need to change, until it requires them to change personally. People are genuinely alarmed by the climate crisis and would willingly take personal steps and back government policies to help combat it– but the more a measure would change their lifestyle, the less they support it. “I’ll support lots of things, until they apply to me.”

Arguably the idea that we’ve all committed to achieving Net Zero by 2050 is an example of “pluralistic ignorance,” where people assume a consensus exists when, in reality, it just doesn’t.

Just because everyone is agreeing with you doesn’t mean they really agree with you.

Remember that when everyone says they love your latest idea.

Related: The Gravitational Pull of Business as Usual