Coleman, Texas. A typical American family is sitting on their porch, playing dominoes. The father-in-law suggests they take a trip to the beautiful city of 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 therefore says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope the mother-in-law wants to go.” The mother-in-law says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.” The drive is hot, dusty and long. The food they eat is God-awful. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted. Dishonestly, one of the family 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’ve had to be crazy to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored. The group are perplexed. They decided to take a trip none of them, as it turns out, wanted to go on. So, what is going on? ‘Tis the question readers.
It’s a common occurrence but it’s not really understood. A group of people decide to do something none of them wanted to do, without noticing they had done so. Each member of a group has mistakenly believed their own preference is counter to the rest of the group and therefore do not raise any objection. The phrase, ‘don’t rock the boat’ comes to mind.
So we have a family. A father, a mother, a mother-in-law and a father-in-law. The father-in-law makes a suggestion to go on a trip. The other three agree. But the trip is awful. The father lies, saying it was a great trip. But the mother-in-law says that she would have rather stayed at home, but went because she thought everyone else wanted to go. The father says that he only went to satisfy the group. The mother says she only went to keep the group happy, but did not want to go because of the heat. And the father-in-law says he only suggested it because playing dominoes was dull as hell and thought everyone was bored. So who made the decision to go? They arrived at a decision without making said decision. It’s a paradox. They’ve arrived at a destination without ever leaving. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?
It’s often believed that the Watergate scandal is a real world example of this paradox. Several people were indicted for the cover-up, and they indicated, in interviews, that they didn’t agree with the decisions they made but feared to voice them. Campaign aide Herbert Porter said that he “was not one to stand up in a meeting and say ‘this should be stopped’”, a decision he then attributed to “the fear of the group pressure that would ensue, of not being a team player”. The group decided to do something each of them disagreed with but did it because they thought everyone else agreed to it, fearing speaking out because they didn’t want to be seen as not being a ‘team-player’. It’s a brilliant paradox, one seen often in the real world and one that’s virtually unavoidable.
As for our confused family in Coleman, Texas, well, they wasted an afternoon on an activity that, as it turns out, none of them wanted to go on that left a bad taste in their collective mouths.
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