The Science of FOMO and What We’re Really Missing Out On
New research does a deep-dive on the pervasive anxiety associated with FOMO.
Posted Apr 23, 2018
It happens to everyone. You’ve been invited to go out for dinner and drinks with co-workers (the fun co-workers, not the annoying ones). But instead, you decide to stay back at the office to put in more work. Of course, you can’t help but wonder: what exactly are you missing out on? How much fun are they having without you there? Will there be inside jokes that you’re now not privy to?
The ubiquitous feeling has always been there. However, we now have a formal nomenclature to describe the "fear of missing out," or as we all have come to know it: FOMO.
It’s prevalent especially among young adults in Western society. And while fear of missing out has always been there, the explosion of social media has launched our young people headfirst into the FOMO experience. Now we have the ability (or curse) to easily see what all our peers are doing all the time. There’s no escaping it, really.
In a recent study published in Motivation and Emotion, scientists at Carleton and McGill University examined the social-psychological basis of FOMO. They wanted to see how it affected first-year university students, predicting it would be associated with a host of negative outcomes related to stress and negative emotionality. Further, the scientists predicted that students who experienced FOMO would be more likely to miss out on sleep and experience more fatigue.
How the researchers did the experiment
Their first study was a lay-of-the-land to get a better understanding of FOMO. Primarily, the researcher wanted to know on which days FOMO mainly occurred, how frequent the experiences were, and what came out of the FOMO experience. They also wanted to know if the frequency of FOMO experiences were related to the Big Five personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
So, first-year university students with smartphones completed a diary for 7 days. They received five alerts throughout the day with a link to a survey, which asked them about their present experiences. At the end of the semester, the students were asked to complete an online questionnaire that focused on well-being and life satisfaction.
The results of this study showed that FOMO was present for participants throughout the day, but mostly later in the day and near the end of the week (TGIF, am I right?!).
People whose behaviors felt more like personal obligations, including studying or working, were more likely to report greater FOMO. It was also associated with the predicted negative outcomes, such as fatigue, stress, sleep problems, and psychosomatic symptoms. Curiously enough, when it came to the personality findings, FOMO was not predicted by neuroticism or extraversion. It’s felt by all regardless of temperament.
A second follow-up study
The findings clearly warranted a follow-up study. Now, the team was interested in seeing how social media played a role. They wanted to know if FOMO experiences were specifically linked to social media usage. They also put forward the argument for the stubbornness of FOMO - to show that it happens all the time, even when the experience that’s causing a person to “miss out” is one that, itself, is fun and interesting.
For this second study, the researchers created a scenario in which participants were asked to read an activity that a person had planned to do that evening, in addition to an alternate activity. In the imagined scenario, the people always chose the planned activity. Here they pitted against one another the features of the chosen versus planned activity. In one case, the alternative activities were either social or not. And in the other case, the person imagined being “reminded” of an alternate social activity (a party) either through a friend or social media notification.
Not surprisingly, FOMO was a commonly reported feeling, which created negative emotions and feelings of distraction. Adding to this, the results showed that FOMO was felt no matter how the person found out about the alternate social activity on which they were missing out. Hearing it from a friend versus social media produced the same amount of FOMO. And finally, it was also felt even when the selected activity was an enjoyable (social) one.
How to get rid of FOMO, if at all?
All together, it’s a first-pass at science trying to uncover the social-psychological basis of FOMO. Next up: To find out whether there are ways to reverse or mitigate the negative effects of FOMO. You can imagine there might be some intervention techniques that could equip a person with certain regulatory resources to combat FOMO. It might be a shift in attentional control: Focus less on potential losses of missing out and focus more on immediate gains of what’s being done in the now.
Sure. Easier said than done.
But until the perfect solution arrives, in the meantime take comfort in knowing that FOMO reduces with age. So no need to dread that next birthday.
I am a behavioral scientist and performance coach. You can find more of my work covering the psychological basis of peak mental performance.
Milyavskaya, M., Saffran, M., Hope, N., & Koestner, R. (2018). Fear of missing out: prevalence, dynamics, and consequences of experiencing FOMO. Motivation and Emotion, 1-13.