Fearing that you're missing out, or FOMO, is a special case of the unpleasant feeling that you're on the outside looking in. We usually think of FOMO as a phenomenon related to social media, when you can clearly see from other people's Facebook or Instagram feeds that they're out having a better time than you, the unincluded, as you sit by yourself at home. Believing that you’re unpopular because you’re not invited to a social event, whether it's one involving friends, family, or coworkers, you muse over your shortcomings and wonder what you’ve done wrong. Maybe FOMO isn’t something you’ve ever experienced; why should you care if your friends are off having a good time without you? You might not be invited to this particular event, but you know there will be others at which you’ll be heartily welcomed.
In fact, people do vary in the extent to which they become anguished when their gang doesn’t include them. In 2013, University of Essex psychologist Andrew Przybylski and colleagues developed a 10-item FOMO scale that they used to estimate FOMO’s prevalence in the population. We now know more about the phenomenon, as it has gained traction in social psychology as well as the popular press, and even what its personality correlates are. Before getting to that research, let’s take a look at this quick FOMO measure.
Przybylski et al. began by drafting 32 items that they believed would “reflect the fears, worries, and anxieties people may have in relation to being in (or out of) touch with the events, experiences, and conversations happening across their extended social circles." In other words, they began with the assumption that you wouldn’t feel FOMO if your best friend had coffee with someone else, but you might if your best friend invited all of your mutual friends to a birthday party, and you read about it on Facebook, having neither been invited nor given a reason why you weren’t.
FOMO can apply both to actual events as well as communications among friends. If everyone else but you knows the meaning of an inside joke, it might bother you, if it implies that you're an outsider. This experience taps into the angst you might have felt as a child, when you were left out of the fun at recess, or even fifth-grade note-passing. Again, not everyone will care about this, but it’s a type of FOMO that can occur in real time. FOMO can torment you long after the moment has passed if you ruminate over the cause of your rejection and seek to understand what makes you such a social outcast.
The FOMO scale eventually developed by the British psychologist and his colleagues contained the following 10 items, with each rated from 1 (not at all true of me) to 5 (extremely true of me). After rating yourself on these items, we’ll see what the scores say about you:
1. I fear others have more rewarding experiences than me.
2. I fear my friends have more rewarding experiences than me.
3. I get worried when I find out my friends are having fun without me.
4. I get anxious when I don’t know what my friends are up to.
5. It is important that I understand my friends ‘"in-jokes."
6. Sometimes, I wonder if I spend too much time keeping up with what is going on.
7. It bothers me when I miss an opportunity to meet up with friends.
8. When I have a good time, it is important for me to share the details online (e.g., updating status).
9. When I miss out on a planned get-together, it bothers me.
10. When I go on vacation, I continue to keep tabs on what my friends are doing.
The average score per question among a sample of over 2,000 adults ranging from 22 to 65 years of age (average 43 years old) was close to 2, indicating that FOMO isn’t a particularly common experience across the adult age range. If you scored between 1 and 3, this suggests that you’re within the expected range on the scale. However, there were relationships between age and FOMO, with higher scores among young adults, and men receiving higher FOMO scores than women. A second study established that, apart from any other demographic factors, FOMO predicted the extent of engagement on Facebook moreso than did age, gender, and a variety of other mood and satisfaction measures.
The British authors went on to examine correlates in feelings and behavior with FOMO among an undergraduate sample, using such indices as extent of Facebook use during meals, before going to bed, and upon awakening. The participants were also asked to indicate how they felt while using Facebook, producing an ambivalent emotional experiences scale. A distracted learning measure examined how often participants used Facebook during class. You can imagine that the more socially anxious individuals, worried that they’re being left behind, would be particularly likely to perform frequent checks to see who’s excluding them. Even more extreme was a measure of Facebook checking while driving. This behavior is not only dangerous in reality, but is also distressing from a mental health point of view. Again, as observed in the previous studies reported in their paper, Przybylski and colleagues found that not only were people high in FOMO more engaged in social media use, but they also did so at the expense of their grades and physical safety.
The Przybylski et al. findings are intriguing in that they show that the people most likely to experience FOMO are also the most likely to feel they need to keep checking on the social media activities of those in their circle. Why would they not enlist their psychological defenses to protect themselves from confronting the dreaded outcomes of seeing their friends having fun without them? They could, after all, just decide to turn off all social media outlets so that they can get on with their actual, rather than virtual, lives. University of Mary Washington’s David Blackwell and colleagues (2017) recently administered a set of personality measures along with FOMO as predictors of use of, and addiction to, social media. The sample was on the small side (approximately 200 individuals), and it was an entirely correlational study. With this provisos in mind, the findings are nevertheless worth exploring.
Extraversion is one personality variable that would logically relate to social media use, given that people who are more outgoing would also be likely to use social media to expand their circle of contacts. Neuroticism, Blackwell and team further predicted, would also increase an individual’s tendencies to conduct frequent social media checks, but for different reasons. In the words of the authors: “they hope to receive feedback and reassurance from others… because it is easier for them to communicate through a screen than to communicate face-to-face." A third factor to consider is attachment style, which would indicate how likely individuals are to seek reassurance from relationships in general. For those who tend to stay away from face-to-face interactions — the avoidantly attached — social media allows them to keep people at a distance while still mentally present in their lives. FOMO would be highest, Blackwell et al. predicted, among people anxious about relationships who, at the same time, fear being excluded.
With social media engagement and addiction as the factors being predicted, the Virginia researchers sampled a group of adults, which included college students receiving extra credit, and an online sample recruited via Facebook or Reddit. The findings suggested that only extraversion predicted the extent of social media use and addiction after all the other variables were controlled, and that neuroticism and attachment style did not. However, in predicting FOMO, both neuroticism and attachment style did play significant roles. In other words, it’s the chronically worried and insecure who will become FOMO victims. High FOMO scores, in turn, predict use of social media in a way that can endanger an individual's safety and productivity.
To sum up, social media can, in fact, prey on people’s preoccupations and perceived weaknesses. By giving those individuals high in FOMO a way to “document” the extent to which they’re being ignored by the people they thought were their friends, social media can only increase the anguish they experience on a daily basis. If you find that you’re constantly not only checking on the social media status of your friends, but feeling envious and resentful of the good times they seem to be having, it might be worth shutting off your Facebook feed for a while. Instead, go out with a friend who will validate your sense of self, allow you to feel worthwhile, and give you a distraction from potentially upsetting online experiences. Focus on the people who care about you, rather than fretting about the ones not with you, to get the most fulfillment out of your relationships.
Blackwell, D., Leaman, C., Tramposch, R., Osborne, C., & Liss, M. (2017). Extraversion, neuroticism, attachment style and fear of missing out as predictors of social media use and addiction. Personality and Individual Differences, 11669-72. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.04.039