The term was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote in the article which Harvey uses to elucidate the paradox:
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."
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 Abilene paradox is similar to groupthink,
but differs in significant ways, including that in groupthink
individuals are not acting contrary to their conscious wishes and
generally feel good about the decisions the group has reached.
In the Abilene paradox, the individuals acting contrary to their own
wishes are more likely to have negative feelings about the outcome.
Like groupthink theories, the Abilene paradox theory is used to
illustrate that groups not only have problems managing disagreements,
but that agreement may also be an issue in a poorly functioning group.