The Abilene Moment in British Politics: Precursor to the US in 2016?

For those who haven’t noticed, Britain is having a General Election tomorrow that it is my and eveyone else’s guess will produce a hung Parliament, a result it is likely no one wants. And who knows if we won’t have the same Abilene Moment in the US in 2016?

Political scientists study the way social choices can sometimes lead to a result no one group of electors, not one set of people with interests, want.

It has also been well described by Jerry Harvey’s the Abilene Paradox: “a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene Paradox is a desire not to “rock the boat” 

Jerry’s original story that led to his theory “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 afternoon.”

I wonder if by Friday many British electors may be feeling decidedly Abilenish? And of course some suggest the family is an essentially Abilenish concept in the first place. 🙂

Though there may be commentators who adopt the attitude that Bertold Brecht parodied in the East German Government after it crushed the 1953 Uprising: “Some party hack decreed that the people had lost the government’s confidence and could only regain it with redoubled effort. If that is the case, would it not be simpler, If the government simply dissolved the people And elected another?”

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Humor, Conflict Processes, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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