Time Out

Notes from a flaming moderate

FOMO, Electric Shock and American Dissatisfaction

Some Americans would rather receive electric shock than have to spend time alone

She was an attractive woman in her mid-60s: trim, fit, and so well put together that her eyeliner matched her bracelet and the bows on her shoes. “I suffer from FOMO," she said with what seemed to be a touch of pride. “It’s usually a young person’s condition. You know what it is, don’t you?  FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. I’m always on the go, always interested in what’s going on, hate to think I may be missing something."

Her comments came back to me this week when I read about a study published in Science.  In a series of experiments, Americans of varied backgrounds whose ages ranged from young adults to 77, were asked to spend 15 minutes alone in a room doing nothing but sitting and thinking. They found the challenge difficult and unpleasant. Some – more males, but also females – found sitting alone with their thoughts so aversive, that, offered the choice, they chose to accept a (mild) electric shock rather than pass the time alone doing nothing! Remember, the challenge was just 15 minutes long, but no cell phones, music, video games, books or gadgets were allowed. Many of us, it seems, don’t know how to enjoy a bit of quiet time with ourselves. We so need constant stimulation that, in a pinch, even electric shock will do. It’s negative stimulation, but at least it’s stimulation…

Does the inability to be alone with one’s thoughts indicate an underlying level of dissatisfaction? If we can trust the results of a survey taken by EMC Research (WeNeedSmith.pdf), perhaps it does.   A phone survey, combined with two internet surveys, reported results that showed increasing levels of public dissatisfaction, alienation, and distrust of the government. This is an upward trend spanning decades – interrupted only by a period following the 9/11 attacks, when the public rallied around its leaders.

With unemployment figures down, and the stock market booming, the economy looks better than it has in years. So why do a third or more of the respondents strongly disagree with the statement “I believe the U.S. Government is working for the people’s best interests?"  A recent Gallup poll agrees with these findings. It found near-historically-low levels of confidence in all three branches of government. Fewer than one in 10 Americans has confidence in their legislative body.

Distrust of the institutions that frame our lives is corrosive to us as individuals and to our society. Perhaps we are distracting ourselves with gadgets - with FOMO – instead of getting involved.   

These survey results cry out for change. They cry out for action!

But first, we need to just sit quietly for a bit, and think.

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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