Psychology of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

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Practical Psychology

There was one good thing about everyone being cooped up in their houses for months during the pandemic. No one was feeling any FOMO! 

What Is FOMO? 

FOMO is a slang term that stands for “fear of missing out.” It’s an anxiety that many people feel when they think about potential rewards that they aren’t experiencing. Often, these rewards are social, but this fear can influence purchasing decisions, too!

Examples of FOMO

If you don’t know what FOMO is, you’ve probably experienced FOMO. You know, those times when you skipped work to hang out with friends or rearranged your whole schedule to watch an event on TV? Those decisions came from the fear of missing out.

Here’s another example. You decide to take the weekend to stay at home and write. You don’t want any distractions or to leave the house. You just want to get your writing done.

During a break, you scroll through Instagram and see a picture of friends hanging out at the lake. You start to get anxious. Should you have gone to the lake instead? Could you be having much more fun with your friends? Did you make the wrong decision by staying at home all weekend? 

You start to feel anxious and restless - just because you started to think about doing another thing with friends. 

FOMO In Purchasing Decisions

On the CryptoCurrency subreddit, user Pixeth_ warned, "If you're kicking yourself for not buying more during the crash, stop. This is how FOMO begins." This use of the word FOMO is just one example of how it may be used in behavioral economics. When people feel as though they have "missed out" on big booms, they might approach new trends differently.

History of FOMO as Slang

If you’ve experienced FOMO, you’re not alone! In 2013, it was added to the Oxford dictionary (alongside “twerking” and “selfie.”) FOMO can be particularly frustrating, especially when the events you don’t want to “miss out on” aren’t anything particularly special. Even when you know that it’s more important to stay at home, go to work, or prioritize other events, that FOMO can come with serious emotions. 

How FOMO Affects Mental Health 

Is this healthy? Nope. Studies show that FOMO is associated with problems like fatigue, inability to sleep, and stress. But what is particularly interesting is that your FOMO might be a waste of time. 

Another definition of FOMO shows just how dangerous pining for these moments can really be. Psych Central’s John M. Grohol says that FOMO is “the potential for simply a different connection. It may be better, it may be worse — we just don’t know until we check.”

Sure, maybe your friends were at the lake. But a week later, you hear that the lake trip was a disaster. Shortly after the picture was taken, it started to storm. Your friends got in a big fight and someone that you don’t like showed up to crash the party. Was it worth the worry, anxiety, and distraction from your writing? 

FOMO and Social Media 

Psychologists have been studying the fear of missing out for decades. So why is “FOMO” now becoming such a widely-used term? 

You guessed it. Social media. 

In 2013, the year FOMO was added to the dictionary, it was reported that 56% of social media users had experienced FOMO. Those numbers have likely grown between 2013 and the time Coronavirus hit. 

A 2018 study of Flemish teenagers showed that social media use and FOMO are closely connected. Higher rates of FOMO was a strong indication of high social media usage. In particular, these teenagers used more private networks like Facebook and Instagram (as opposed to YouTube.) 

In this study, the researchers make a very poignant observation about how social media fits in with our identity. They say, “In addition to the personal mind and physical body, the Self can be thought to include people, places, physical possessions, as well as affiliation groups to which a person feels attached. Social media platforms are a part of this: they are the digital portals to affiliation groups.” 

These affiliation groups may include your family, friends, or people who look and think like you do. When you have access to these groups and feel seen, you feel as though you belong. 

Since the beginning of time, humans have wanted to belong. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places belonging in the middle of the pyramid, right above safety and physiological needs. Before modern times, belonging used to be essential to a person’s safety and physiological needs. If a person didn’t have a tribe or a hunting group, they might not get food or be protected from predators. Nowadays, if a person feels isolated, they may find themselves at higher risk of anxiety, depression, and even obesity or stroke. 

By checking in on social media, we are able to easily access different affiliation groups. We are able to see relatable memes about millennials, make a comment about a TV show that we are a fan of, or watch thought leaders speak live about different topics of interest. Each of these interactions makes us feel rewarded. These rewards, however small, are addicting and easy to continue chasing. 

When we see the potential for larger rewards in front of us, our brain wants to chase it. It wants that instant gratification that it gets from social media. 

On the flip side, if we see evidence that we are not a part of these affiliation groups - that these groups of friends or music fans are gathered together without us, we feel as if we don’t belong. We feel worthless. We feel that if only we were at the event or in the know, we would belong again. This is when FOMO truly rears its ugly head. 

How to Reduce FOMO 

The anxiety we get from FOMO is often unfounded. Even though your friends are gathered together at a party, is the party going to be that life-changing? Probably not. Are you less of a person because you didn’t attend a particular concert? Don’t be silly. 

Keep this in mind as you scroll. Or better yet, don’t scroll at all. Reduce your scrolling and focus on what’s happening in the present moment. Spend your time reflecting on the rewards that you are working toward by staying in, focusing on your health, studying, or whatever you’re doing. Make plans to meet with friends in-person, then put your phone down. 

FOMO is like many other types of anxiety. If you are aware of its triggers, and can gently redirect your mind to a more calm place, you will find yourself feeling happier, sleeping better, and being an overall more healthy person.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, June). Psychology of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Retrieved from

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