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The psychology behind FoMO: Why are you afraid of missing out?

23. March 2016 in
The psychology behind FoMO

You know it could be better, right? You could be having more fun, right now. You could have a better job. And more exciting plans for this evening.

If that leaves you cold, congratulations. If, however, you feel the urge to check job ads and your friend’s evening plans, you probably suffer from FoMO.

FoMO is an abbreviation for the “Fear of Missing Out”. And even if the acronym is pretty new, the phenomenon behind it is not. The grass has always been greener on the other side. Nevertheless, people’s anxiety to be missing out on something seems to have increased within the last decades. Especially, the Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) are  prone to it.

But what makes us fear that everyone else is having more fun, love and success? Two things are important for the psychology behind FoMO: decisions and social comparison.

You are afraid of missing out because you have to decide between different options. When it comes to FoMO, these are usually not decisions about life or death. The fear is all about ending up worse compared to others – by missing a cool party or choosing a somewhat lame holiday destination.

It does not come as a surprise that the internet, and especially Social Media, has contributed to the expansion of FoMO. There is no richer source for option overkill and social comparison. 


All those options: FoMO and decisions

We would never suspect you. But probably you have this one friend. The one that accepts your invitations only at the last minute. And, you have the feeling, that’s just because nothing more exciting popped up in the event calendar. It is annoying and somewhat insulting. But where does this reluctance to commit come from?

The internet offers endless possibilities. It provides you with a huge selection of event tips, special offers, reading material… That sounds pretty great, actually. Right?

But there is a downside. From a psychological point of view, endless options are not a benefit. Why? Simply because you cannot have it all. Choosing from a big selection necessarily means that there are many options you are not going to choose. Five different party invitations for Saturday are not just five potential fun nights. No, first and foremost, they are four events you will miss. And that makes you anxious.

Humans have a tendency to avoid losses. Deciding for your birthday party, means “loosing” the other Saturday night alternatives. Thus, your FoMO-driven friend will try to postpone the decision as long as possible. Or end up hurrying to the next party after an hour. All in the name of risk aversion.


Facebook friends have more fun? FoMO and social comparisons

After that fair-weather friend took off, he is likely to appear in your Facebook feed, having the time of his life. Whereas your birthday party seems to be all about puking in the hallway and drunken wailing about exes in the living room. Actually, you are pretty sure that everyone else is having a better time right now. And Facebook proves you right.

Why can’t you just try to make the best of your party and forget about the rest of the world? The reason is also pretty natural: Humans have a drive to compare themselves to others. This is often helpful. It can motivate you to improve a skill or reconsider an opinion. However, social comparisons can also spawn envy – especially when they are derived from Social Media.

In general, people tend to underestimate that other people face difficulties, too. Social Media intensifies this phenomenon. Certainly, your friends post a lot more pictures from their world trips than their dental surgeries. No wonder, research found that browsing other people’s posts on Facebook is likely to lead to envy – and with envy comes the fear that others have something that you don’t.


How to avoid FoMO

You see: It is comprehensible why we are afraid of missing out in this world of unlimited possibility and social comparison. However, if you feel that this anxiety is getting in the way of your happiness, you should react.

Find out if you are missing something

Researchers found that people with unsatisfied basic needs are more likely to experience FoMO. One of those needs is, for example, having your life under control. Another is the wish for human contact and intimacy. When you feel that you spend too much time pondering about missing out, you should rather think about what you are missing. Try to find out what you are unhappy with and do something about it.

Settle with “good enough”

There is another risk group for FoMO: maximizers. Maximizers are people who always strive for the best. And are not satisfied with that still. These people often achieve admirable things. But they also tend to be unhappier than those with a “Good enough” mentality. We do not want to discourage you from perfectionism altogether. However, maybe you will find that there are areas in your life that can do with a little imperfection. Does it really matter if you only attend the second-coolest party this weekend? Maybe you could even stay at home and discover the “Joy of Missing Out”!

Mindful social media

Social Media is definitely not the root of all evil. However, if you are prone to FoMO, you should adopt a mindful mindset about Facebook and Co.

  • Even if it seems like the easiest solution: Remember that Social Media is seldom a good cure for loneliness. There are much better remedies, like going out or even calling your Mom.
  • It has been shown that passive Social Media use (not posting or interacting but merely letting the information wash over you) can make your mood drop. For this reason, you might think about restricting the time you browse through your News Feed.
  • Keep in mind that people on Social Media always seem happier than they are. Yes, they do have back pains and dentist’s appointments, too. They just do not post about them. 



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Susanne Krause

About the Author

Susanne Krause
Researcher and author. As a graduate of psychology and philosophy as well as an experienced journalist, she knows not only where to find the information but also how to put it into words best.

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