The Group God

The sacrifice of the individual at the altar of the group.

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 [50-mile (80-km)] trip to Abilene 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.

Jerry Harvey, The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox is about how a group can collectively do something that none of the members individually wants to – in fact, would much rather not do.


The direct cause is that rather than voicing authentic opinions, the attempt is to pre-empt or second-guess what others would want to hear. It’s not what you want, it’s not what they want, it’s what you think they want. And they do the same.

The paradox is just the same if there’s an authority figure in the group. Now it’s based on what someone thinks the leader would want to hear, rather than what the whole group would.

If one person breaks the paradox, others might voice their true feelings too. But when everyone around you wants to go to Abilene, you’ll come across as the surly party-pooper if you refuse. Breaking consensus is hard.

Why would people suppress their real opinions? It’s because of what they think would happen if they didn’t. Which is a function of both me and my environment; specifically a function of the consequences I expect from speaking up, and the consequences I’m prepared to bear.

The consequences I expect are as much based on me – what I think will happen, and how I interpret it – as on the environment around me – what actually happens, how people tend to behave. You see it when you change the environment keeping the person constant – the same person might be a bold lion in front of pals and a timid mouse in front of work colleagues.

And you see it when you change the person but keep the environment constant. Different people react very differently in the same situation, often because the consequences they’re prepared to bear vary. The sheer variation is immense and interesting. At one end, you have Sophie and Hans Scholl, who distributed anti-Nazi material in the heart of Nazi Germany openly – as close to a death wish as you can imagine. Somewhere near the median is Galileo, who recanted under the Inquisition – perhaps feeling, not unreasonably, that saying that the earth moves wasn’t worth dying for. And then you have ordinary instances where a person is afraid to say something for fear of hurting another’s feelings.

And those consequences in turn themselves depend on how much weight a person assigns them. A man who didn’t care much whether he lived or died would probably express himself very freely; one who felt the smallest confrontation deeply would hesitate to say anything that could offend anyone.

It’s fair to assume that different people will make different choices – not everyone will, or has any obligation to, express themselves at the cost of great harm. Where the cost trumps benefit – or rather perceived cost trumps perceived benefit – people will dissemble.

That’s about why it happens, but I find the more interesting question is – is the Abilene paradox desirable?

I think the answer to this depends on how you think about that mythical entity so easily called a ‘group’.

Group Theists and Atheists

What is a group after all?

Take ten individuals – do they constitute a group? Is a group separate from the individuals – are there now eleven entities – ten individuals and a group present here?

And then you have the question of what ‘group’ really means – remove one person, and you might still believe you have a group. Carry on and eventually, after you remove the ninth person you’re down to one individual. Does the group still exist, or did it die somewhere along the process? And what if you now remove the last person?

Someone who considers a group as an entity in its own right, independent of the individuals who constitute it, might make out a case for peace and harmony at all costs, regardless of the cost to the individuals. I’ll call such believers ‘group theists’, those who believe in the group god.

If you value ‘group’ consensus and harmony – even at the cost of personal inconvenience – then the Abilene paradox isn’t really a problem. Such people might choose to make a painful trip as long as the tribe – the group deity – is happy.

It’s optimizing for the ‘group’, this imagined construct that doesn’t independently exist. And the problem with that is, because it doesn’t really exist, it’s easy to hijack. Anyone can push their claims in the name of the group without it being possible to refute them. The usual clarion calls in the name of ‘the people’.

Whereas, those group atheists who hold that a group is nothing but the individuals who constitute it, won’t treat those individuals as pawns to be sacrificed at the altar of the mythical ‘Group’ god. If there is no independent thing as a group, there is no justification for bringing pain to very real individuals in its name.


Unfortunately, pure-blood groups of believers and non-believers don’t exist – both group theists and atheists coexist.

The group atheist is by his very belief designed to not inflict his interests on the group, whose existence, after all, he denies. He makes no claim on others – their behaviour isn’t his concern. Whether they choose to go to Abilene or rot at home isn’t his business.

The group theist, on the other hand, because of his belief, can’t let alone. For him it is not sufficient to decide for himself, he feels the urge to impose on the group entire. Were he to let alone, he would scarcely be a group theist.

This coexistence therefore, is by its very nature a coexistence of conflict. And in this battle the atheist is always the defender, the theist always the offender, and it cannot be any other way, because the moment the group atheist launches an offence, he has made a claim on the group, the entity whose existence he denies, and in doing so, is no longer an atheist. And the moment the group theist lets alone and ceases the offence, he ceases to acknowledge the group (or at least fragments it – and when you endlessly fragment a group you arrive at the individual), and commits sacrilege in the eyes of the group god.

Nor is their strength equal. The atheist camp is a camp of loosely connected individuals pursuing their own interests; the theist camp a single body of believers. A small, closely knit, powerful group will easily overpower a far more numerically superior but disconnected mass of individuals, just as (relatively) much smaller numbers of soldiers could control huge populations throughout history, and still do. Almost invariably then, the norms of the theists must prevail over the group.


Can there ever be peace? To ask that is to ask how to avoid the Abilene paradox, which directly pits the interests of the individual against that of the real or imagined group.

Where both group theists and atheists co-exist, you can’t have peace. It’s tempting to think it might be possible, but it’s statistically not. To do so would imply the desires of every individual group atheist were exactly aligned with the desires of the ‘group’ (if you could ever figure that out). It’s unlikely to imagine a group that simply randomly happened to consist of a hundred individuals who all wanted to go to Abilene, let alone millions.

It might be possible though, to find sanctuaries of peace in isolated, sanitized environments where you can control the entry of people. Organizations or communities where you recruit your fellow-mates – either all theists or atheists.

Which is to say that you create a ‘group’ where everyone is strongly committed to and identifies with certain goals. Those who differ can leave, or else need to win over the entire community – failing which they abandon their differences. A distributed system with a protocol where every node must share the same state – the nodes that differ from the majority are either forced to fail or their state forcibly aligned to the group.

Such a group must of course be willing to – and probably would prefer it that way – live in its own illusory bubble, shunning any information that doesn’t conform to it, lest cracks of dissent appear and the group splinter. And it must exert enough force or control to enforce either exile or compliance on dissidents.

The alternative is the – not exactly group, but ‘space’ – of group atheists. An environment where no one is pushed to adopt any particular stance on anything, where there are no severe costs for dissent. Perhaps every node might in fact have the same state in a particular matter – but that would be a coincidence, the result of individual nodes independently choosing the same state, not a single leader node thrusting its state on replicas.

And in fact, for the existence of the group atheist community, every node would need to be aligned on at least one thing – group atheism. A node that decides to worship the Group deity poses the beginning of a fundamental threat should its heresy spread, because by their very nature and strength group theists would eventually take over the entire network.

This is simply the old paradox of tolerance – that too much tolerance is unsustainable. If a society is tolerant without any limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant.


The group theist will flourish in certain environments. In group atheist communities his groupist beliefs will likely be tolerated, at least initially. And in his home network he is always safely ensconced. His threat comes not from group atheists, but from other theists – those believers who worship a different deity.

When roaming in foreign group theist networks – that differ from his one – he finds that his group deity is not worshipped here. And group theists usually do not take well to those who inflict their foreign deities upon them.

Which means that, the most hawkish of group theists is reduced to a mild dove – or rather, mild group atheist – when in other group theist lands. He’s forced either to don the garb of the atheist, or at least tone down his theism and forego proselytization. Group theists may have excellent intra-bonding, but very poor inter-bonding – in fact, there is probably inter-repulsion.

The group atheists are the inverse. Because of their fundamental creed, which is a cosmopolitan one – you can, after all, believe in many different gods, but you can only really disbelieve in one abstract god – a group atheist is at home in any atheist space. They may have weaker intra-bonding, but their inter-bonding is equivalent to the intra-bonding. It is only in the theist groups that the atheist node must tread carefully.

Navigating Costs

The Abilene paradox is the triumph of the group’s will, real or imagined, over the individual.

I’ve always found it completely incomprehensible, why, on those rare occasions when another person wishes to eat or drink or go somewhere and asks, or rather pleads, for me to join, my refusal should be taken so personally. Why someone else’s happiness should depend on my food choices or recreation is a mystery to me. And certainly doesn’t cast any obligation on me. That someone else should (apparently) pin their (momentary) happiness on my choices and suffer for it is their stupidity, not my callousness.

For group theists, those who – for some strange reason – derive personal satisfaction from the knowledge that other individuals are doing, or being made to do, the same thing they are, Abilene is not a problem but a consummation devoutly to be wished.

It’s the group atheists for whom Abilene is a problem, a cost to be paid. The question is how to pay that cost in the most painless manner possible.

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

I don’t think the solution is open combat – actively fighting a group or worse, trying to create a new group to take on the old one. You pay a far greater cost than you have to if, to win free of the group, you yourself become a groupist.

It’s probably much easier and painless to strive for individual solutions – escape, subterfuge, outward conformity – than dedicating one’s life to a complete overhaul of the old, even if it is less glamorous or noble.

Which is to say that the path taken by the atheists is not that of a united struggle but individual salvation – each tends to his own garden, not so much openly challenging but silently, internally flouting, minimizing the inconvenience while maintaining an outward charade to escape the costs of defiance.

Teams over Families

To disbelieve in the notion of a ‘group’ is not to believe in anarchy, a world consisting of isolated individuals acting independently without any coordination whatsoever.

The idea of ‘group’ in the sense it tends to be used, and the way I’ve used it here, is the idea of ‘collective identity’. But it needn’t always be so – you can have collective action without collective identity, where individuals retain their own identity, their own motivations, their own incentives. That’s the idea that individuals act in their own interests; collective action is simply individual people with aligning incentives acting in concert.

This is rejecting the typical idea of an organization as a ‘family’, the idea that tries to imply people are in it together through thick and thin, no matter what.

The family analogy is delusional at best and hypocritical at worst; it runs counter to the majority of reality. Most employees are always on the lookout for greener pastures. And most organizations – which is to say, the individuals who’re taking the decisions – are only too ready to drop people when expedient.

There’s nothing wrong with this, though it might seem like rats always on the ready to leave a sinking ship. It’s natural to expect individuals to seek to optimize their outcomes. To ask them not to do so, in the name of ‘loyalty’ or ‘morality’ or ‘duty’ or any such falsity is not simply as stupid as asking the tide to roll back but entitled too, demanding others to forego their interests to protect your own.

A far better analogy is Netflix’s football team. The team is held not by delusional or manipulative loyalty but self-interested cooperation – there are to be no free-riding leeches, everyone must sing for their supper. The team is about performance – players understand if they perform they get their place in the team, if they don’t they’re benched. Just as the management understands that if players get better offers they will move on. People look out for each other and perform, but they don’t expect to be carried around like deadweight. Of course, it demands certain pre-requisites, not least of which is very high talent density, from its members, as Reed Hastings goes into in No Rules Rules.

That’s for organizations that work to perform a function. Another kind of organization is the interest group, the collection that exists to supposedly serve the interests of its members, and the prime example of a ‘group’.

I recall coming across an argument somewhere that convinced me to never be a part of one if ever I got the chance. Imagine a union that succeeded in negotiating X wages or working conditions. What could you say about the people who’d be a part of it? A skilled person, someone in demand with multiple opportunities open to him, who could negotiate better than X for himself wouldn’t need to join. If anything he’d be an eyesore for the union, a temptation among its members to desert and do better for themselves individually.

Whereas those who knew that in the open market they couldn’t fetch a wage of X would leap to join and maximize their outcomes. Essentially, an interest group self-selects for those group-theists who’d gain from it and be only too willing to subsume their individuality at the altar of the group.

The Paradox

The Abilene paradox is interesting because it appears as a contradiction between individual thought and action. In one sense, it is – because left to themselves, none of the people involved would have wanted to go to Abilene.

And yet, all of them did choose to, and that choosing implies a conscious decision. The group theist makes a positive choice – he values the group god’s pleasure over his own.

The group atheist, if he does so choose, chooses negatively – he pays the cost of suffering a trip to Abilene because he’s afraid of the penalty for refusing. Or, if he can figure out a way, he wriggles out of it.