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From FOMO to FOBO: The Feeling of Being Outcompeted

The fear of being outcompeted can be another source of social anxiety.

“It isn't easy to be anything nowadays. There's such a lot of beastly competition about,” quipped Oscar Wilde in 1895. Well, the competition got much worse since. But what also changed is the nature of this competition. In Oscar Wilde’s time, you knew whom you were competing with. Now you don’t. And this ‘being something’ Wilde talks about has become much more important for our self-image.

There is FOMO: the feeling of missing out, the widely analyzed dominant attitude of our generation. But there is also FOBO: the feeling of being outcompeted, something Oscar Wilde clearly knew about but that gained a completely different dimension in our age of social media.

We define ourselves as, say, connoisseurs of Thai food, fans of a certain TV show, as great parents or as excellent data processors (or whatever our job is). We consider these features to be constitutive of who we are and we seek out others who also define themselves that way. And, to return to the original Oscar Wilde insight, there are just so many of people like that—great parents, great connoisseurs of Thai food, or great fans of a certain TV show.

We all think that we are better than average at pretty much anything. 93% of drivers think that we are better than average at driving. That is, 43% of us are delusional. And it is not just driving. More than 90% of university professors think their teaching is better than average. 85% of teenagers think that they get on well with others better than average. In fact, 25% of them think that they are in the top 1% in this respect. We systematically overrate ourselves in pretty much everything we do. And the more we care about something the more likely we are to think we are better at it than the rest of the world.

In some ways this makes a lot of sense. If you define yourself as a rock climber and you spend much of your free time in climbing gyms and talking about climbing gear with your climbing friends, then it is difficult to admit to yourself that you are a less than mediocre climber. In fact, it may also be difficult to admit to yourself that you are a slightly better than mediocre climber. But half of climbing enthusiasts are less than mediocre climbers. And the majority of them are just about mediocre or worse. They all live with a self-image that does not reflect reality.

But reality is cruel. It is difficult to hide from it in the long run. Sooner or later, it becomes obvious that I am just not a very good climber. And in the age of social media, it is difficult not to be constantly reminded of just how much better others are at things we deeply care about.

To make things even worse, most of these people who are better than you are do not live in your neighborhood. They live far away in different countries. You can still follow them on Twitter and Instagram. You compare yourself to them and you compare your connoisseurship of Thai cuisine to theirs. But this comparison is often not too flattering to you. You’re being outcompeted in what you really care about and outcompeted by someone you don’t even know.

We feel a very strong allegiance to these global groups defined by a shared interest, but the social dynamics of these groups is very different from the dynamics of local groups, mainly because you don’t really know the other members of the group. You only know their strengths or weaknesses in your shared interest. You don’t know their insecurities, their social grace (or lack thereof), or their redeeming features.

FOMO, the feeling of missing out, got a lot of attention in recent years as the main reason for our unhappiness in the age of social media. When you check Facebook, it seems that all your friends are doing much more glamorous or fun things than you do. FOMO is not great. But in some sense it is a minor nuisance compared to FOBO, the feeling of being outcompeted.

FOBO hits where it really hurts: You are confronted with your mediocrity in what you cherish the most. And, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, this can happen several times every minute. The “beastly competition” Oscar Wilde talked about has always been there. But in the age of FOBO, it is constantly rubbed in our face.