The fear of missing out (FOMO) is the concern that people experience with regard to the possibility that they’re missing out or will miss out on rewarding opportunities. People most commonly experience FOMO when it comes to rewarding opportunities that other people, and especially those in your close social circle, are a part of.
A common example of FOMO is being worried about missing events that your friends might attend, which can cause you to constantly check the social media platform that you all use.
FOMO is a prevalent phenomenon in today’s world, and can have a powerful negative impact on your mental health and emotional wellbeing, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about FOMO, understand where and why people experience it, and see what you can do in order to overcome it successfully.
Examples of FOMO
“Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out—that your peers are doing, in the know about or in possession of more or something better than you. FOMO may be a social angst that’s always existed, but it’s going into overdrive thanks to real-time digital updates and to our constant companion, the smartphone.
As social media makes people aware of things to which they otherwise might not have been privy, it can spark a sense of vicarious participation or motivate real-world behavior. Conversely, it can be a curse, fostering anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.”
— From the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ report by JWT Intelligence (2011)
People can experience FOMO in a variety of situations. For example:
- Someone might worry that they’re missing out on enjoyable events that their peers are going to, which can cause them to feel anxious and upset.
- Someone might worry that by picking a certain career they’ll miss out on alternative paths, which can cause them to postpone making a final decision.
- Someone might worry that they’ll miss out on valuable opportunities if they turn down other people’s offers, which can cause them to say “yes” when invited to participate in things that they’re not really interested in.
Furthermore, FOMO can also occur on a large, social scale, when a substantial number of people experience it simultaneously, in a way that shapes their behavior. For example, when it comes to investing, FOMO can cause a large number of people to rush into a risky investment because they don’t want to miss out on a profitable venture that others are a part of, a behavior that can lead to financial bubbles that eventually burst.
The dangers of FOMO
FOMO can be problematic, for a number of reasons.
First, FOMO has been shown to have a negative impact on people’s emotional wellbeing. Furthermore, FOMO is also associated with various mental health issues, such as fatigue and stress, which can, in turn, cause people to experience problems with their physical health.
In addition, FOMO is associated with various forms of excessive use of social media. For example, FOMO is associated with being more likely to use social media immediately after waking up or right before going to sleep. As such, FOMO serves as a strong predictor of social-media addiction.
The various types of FOMO-driven social media use can interfere with people’s lives as they perform everyday activities. This can be an issue, for example, when FOMO drives people to use social media while they’re in class, while they’re on a date with their partner, or while they’re driving.
Finally, high levels of FOMO can not only make people more likely to use social media, but can also make the experience itself more stressful, particularly when the person using social media as a result of their FOMO feels unpopular or that they don’t fit in. Accordingly, FOMO is associated with social media fatigue, which occurs when someone feels mental exhaustion after engaging with social media.
Note, however, that FOMO isn’t always a bad thing, and it can, in fact, have some benefits. For example, in some cases FOMO can prompt you to take action and participate in enjoyable events that you wouldn’t participate in otherwise, or it can prompt you to thoroughly examine all the options that are available to you in order to make sure that you pick the best one. Nevertheless, most discussions of the topic, both in the research community and in general, revolve around the more common, negative outcomes of this phenomenon.
Why people experience FOMO
Different people experience FOMO for different reasons in different situations. However, at its core, FOMO is driven by the natural desire to make sure that you don’t miss out on potential positive outcomes that you can experience. This desire is particularly strong when it comes to positive outcomes that other people are experiencing, since humans are naturally social creatures, who often compare themself to others, and particularly to those around them.
From a scientific perspective, a prominent framework that is used to explain why people experience FOMO is self-determination theory, which is a psychological theory that suggests that effective self-regulation and psychological health depend on three factors:
- Competence, which represents people’s need to feel that they’re able to act in an effective manner and exercise their capabilities.
- Autonomy, which represents people’s need to feel that they’re in control of their life, in terms of determining their behaviors and goals.
- Relatedness, which represents people’s need to feel that they’re connected with others, by caring for others and being cared for by them, and by feeling that they belong in a community.
Under this framework, FOMO can be viewed as a self-regulatory issue that occurs as a result of situational or chronic deficits when it comes to meeting your psychological needs. Accordingly, low levels of competence, autonomy, or connectedness, which have been identified as vulnerability factors for behavioral dysregulation in other domains, are also associated with increased FOMO.
For example, among college students, FOMO was found to be associated with difficulties in adjusting to college. This suggests that students who suffer from deficits in their psychological needs, especially when it comes to the need to be connected with others, and who suffer from related issues, such as loneliness, depression, and anxiety, experience a desire to stay constantly connected with what others are doing.
Other factors can also make people predisposed to experiencing FOMO.
For example, individuals who have an interdependent self-construal, which means that they tend to evaluate themself based on the nature of their relationships with others, are more prone to FOMO than individuals who have an independent self-construal, which means that they conceptualize their self as being entirely autonomous and independent of others.
Furthermore, social FOMO is more common in people who tend to pay attention to the state of mind of others, particularly when it comes to positive social interactions. In addition, FOMO is also associated with the need to belong in a community and receive approval from others, as well as with the need to feel popular.
Finally, various other background factors, such as gender, can also affect the likelihood that people will experience FOMO at any given time. Furthermore, people’s tendency to experience FOMO also varies based on other factors, such as the time of day or the day of the week.
Note: as we saw earlier, FOMO can be experienced in a variety of contexts, and can therefore be prompted by different psychological mechanisms in different situations. For example, fear of missing out on information relating to potential investments is distinct and different in some ways from the fear of missing out on social events.
FOMO, social media use, and related issues
Though FOMO can influence people in various situations, it’s is most commonly associated with social media, where the fear of missing out on current or upcoming events causes people to repeatedly check their preferred social media platforms.
Accordingly, FOMO is also associated with related issues, and most notably with problematic internet use and problematic smartphone use. This happens not only because FOMO-driven use of social media generally involves the internet and smartphones, but also because the factors that lead to FOMO, such as loneliness, can also lead to these issues, and because FOMO can cause people to engage in these problematic behaviors directly.
Furthermore, note that the action of checking social media as a result of FOMO can sometimes lead to rewarding outcomes for people, when they run into relevant or rewarding information, which can reinforce this sort of behavior. This is evident, for example, in a study on the topic, in which a participant described their phone as a “pocket slot machine”, and stated that “if you could win the lottery at any moment, wouldn’t you keep checking?”.
Externally initiated FOMO
The majority of work on the topic of FOMO deals with self-initiated FOMO-driven behaviors, such as checking your phone to see what other people are doing on social media. However, FOMO can also be initiated by external stimuli, such as by seeing someone check their phone, which can cause you to experience FOMO and check your phone as well.
FOMO in marketing
The concept of FOMO is frequently used in marketing, in order to persuade consumers to act a certain way. This is often achieved through the use of FOMO appeals, which are statements that are sent to potential consumers, in order to evoke a sense of ‘missing out’, either explicitly or implicitly, with the goal of getting the consumers to take a certain action, usually in the form of purchasing some service or product.
For example, a common type of explicit FOMO appeal is the statement “don’t miss out on this limited-time offer!”. Similarly, a common type of implicit FOMO appeal is placing a countdown timer during an online sale, or presenting users with notifications stating that the product in question is about to run out.
Furthermore, there are other ways in which FOMO can be used to market products. For example, when it comes to video games, companies often promote FOMO by creating special events associated with unique content, that players don’t want to miss out on.
FOMO and scarcity
Scarcity, which occurs when a certain thing is in short supply, is a concept that often plays a role both when it comes to FOMO in general, as well as when it comes to marketing-driven FOMO in particular. For example, companies that want to promote a product often point out that only a limited number of copies are available, at least in the short-term, in order to prompt FOMO in potential customers, and push them to make a purchase before all the copies run out.
Furthermore, when FOMO is prompted in this manner, artificial scarcity is often involved. This occurs when scarcity, or the appearance of it, is created intentionally in order to promote FOMO. For example, this can occur when a company causes people to believe that a certain product is about to run out, even though in reality that’s not the case.
Note: the use of scarcity to promote FOMO relies on perceived scarcity rather than on genuine scarcity, which means that it relies on scarcity as it’s perceived by potential customers, rather than on scarcity as it exists in reality. In some cases, a product’s perceived scarcity is equivalent (or highly similar) to its genuine scarcity, but this isn’t always the case, and FOMO can be created when a product is perceived as scarce, even if in reality it’s not.
How to overcome the fear of missing out
In order to successfully overcome your fear of missing out, you should start by identifying the nature of your FOMO problem, by figuring out the following:
- When and where you experience FOMO. For example, you might find that you experience FOMO on weekend nights, if you spend that time alone at home.
- Which negative thought patterns and behaviors you engage in when you experience FOMO. For example, you might find that you lie in bed, browsing social media on your phone while feeling sad and left out.
- What causes you to experience FOMO in the first place. For example, you might find that you feel FOMO because there’s nothing for you to do or think about, so you start obsessing about what others are doing instead.
Once you identify these things, you will be prepared to overcome your FOMO problem, using various techniques that will help you deal with its underlying causes.
Specifically, here are some behavioral techniques that you can use to overcome FOMO:
- If your FOMO is triggered by something specific, try to find ways to avoid that trigger. For example, if your FOMO is triggered by social media, you could try to reduce the amount of time that you spend on social media, which you can achieve in various ways, such as by blocking social media sites during certain time periods, or by putting the icons to the social media apps that you use away from the home screen of your phone.
- Try to replace negative habits that cause you to experience FOMO with more positive ones, that allow you to avoid it. For example, if you often experience FOMO as a result of being bored alone at home, try to find some hobby that takes you outside and gets you to engage with people.
- Use nudges to remind yourself to avoid FOMO-based patterns. For example, you can put a small note on the side of your computer screen reminding you to relax and not worry about what others are doing.
- Instead of immediately agreeing to things just because you’re afraid of missing out, say that you need some time to think about it. For example, if people keep offering you to participate in events, instead of automatically saying “yes”, tell them that it sounds interesting and that you’ll get back to them, and then do so after you’ve had some time to think about their offer.
In addition, here are some cognitive techniques that you can use to overcome FOMO:
- Adopt a mindfulness-based perspective. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment as you’re experiencing it, while accepting your thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental manner. This mindset can help you avoid FOMO where possible, and help you reduce FOMO’s negative impact in situations where you don’t manage to avoid it entirely.
- Internalize the value of your time, effort, mental energy. If your problem is that your FOMO causes you to say “yes” to everything, which ends up wearing you down, then you should remind yourself that there is a significant cost involved with accepting every offer, in terms of factors such as your time and energy, and that it can therefore be better to say “no” in some situations, even if this comes at the potential cost of missing out on some opportunities.
- Embrace the joy of missing out. Instead of worrying about the possibility that you’re missing out on things, try to actively celebrate this, by focusing on the benefits of missing whatever opportunities you’ve missed. For example, if you feel bad that you’ve missed out on a certain event because you felt that you needed to spend a night at home to relax, try to celebrate your choice to stay at home, and focus on the positives of having chosen to do that rather than going out.
When it comes to embracing the joy of missing out, there is a short poem on the topic which describes this feeling, and which might help you internalize the value of this concept:
“Oh the joy of missing out.
When the world begins to shout
And rush towards that shining thing;
The latest bit of mental bling —
Trying to have it, see it, do it,
You simply know you won’t go through it;
The anxious clamouring and need
This restless hungry thing to feed.
Instead, you feel the loveliness;
The pleasure of your emptiness.
You spurn the treasure on the shelf
In favour of your peaceful self;
Without regret, without a doubt.
Oh the joy of missing out.”
— “JOMO” by Michael Leunig (2017)
How to help others overcome their fear of missing out
To help others overcome their fear of missing, you can encourage them to apply the same concepts that you would use to overcome your own FOMO, such as avoiding things that trigger their FOMO, or replacing negative habits that cause them to experience FOMO with more positive habits.
Furthermore, other techniques can also help you reduce other people’s FOMO. For example, if someone is prone to feel FOMO because they worry about being left out, you could make sure to include them, and reassure them that you value your relationship with them.
Moreover, even just being there for someone can often be beneficial when it comes to reducing people’s FOMO. For example, one study found that when parents engage in positive communication with their adolescent children, by listening to them, attempting to understand what they think and how they feel, and by creating a supportive environment for discussion, the adolescents are less likely to experience FOMO.
After the concept of FOMO gained prominence, a number of related concepts have been proposed in various sources:
- Mystery of Missing Out (MOMO). The mystery of missing out represents the anxiety that occurs as a result of wondering why people that you know aren’t posting anything on social media at all.
- Fear of Being Offline (FOBO). The fear of being offline represents the anxiety that occurs as a result of not being unavailable for communication purposes, usually in the context of the internet and social media, but also in other contexts, such as not being reachable by phone. This fear can often be driven by an underlying FOMO, and it’s related to the concept of nomophobia, which is the fear of being unable to use one’s phone.
- Fear of Better Options (FOBO). The fear of better options represents the anxiety that people experience when they need to choose a certain option, but believe that a better one is available, or will be available in the future.
- Fear of Doing Anything (FODA). The fear of doing anything represents a state where a person feels paralyzed and unable to act, because they’re afraid of making the wrong decision. This can often be driven by other underlying fears, such as the fear of better options, and is associated with concepts such as analysis paralysis, where people are unable to make a decision.
- Fear of Disappointing Others (FODO). The fear of disappointing others represents the anxiety that people experience with regard to doing some that will potentially disappoint others.
- Joy of Missing Out (JOMO). The joy of missing out represents a contrasting mindset to FOMO, and involves openly accepting and celebrating the fact that one is missing out on some things.
However, note that these concepts have not, for the most part, been as well defined and researched as FOMO, and they’re generally less common in terms of usage.
The origin and history of FOMO
The acronym ‘FOMO’ was first used in published writing by marketing consultant Dan Herman, in a report published on November 2002, titled “Think Short: Short-Term Brands Revolutionize Branding“, where he discussed the phenomenon.
“The emerging portrait is of a person and consumer who is led by a new basic motivation: ambition to exhaust all possibilities and the fear of missing out on something.”
However, the concept of FOMO received its initial attention primarily from a later article titled “Social Theory at HBS: McGinnis’ Two FOs“, which was published on May 2004 in Harvard Business School’s “The Harbus”, by then-student Patrick McGinnis, who claims to have coined the term independently.
Nevertheless, based on the Google Trends data on the topic, neither the term ‘FOMO‘ nor the term ‘fear of missing out‘ gained significant traction until years after the publication of these two articles.
Finally, note that while the acronym ‘FOMO’ can be attributed to the sources listed above, the concept of the fear of missing out has been mentioned in various contexts at earlier points in time. For example:
“If arch-theoreticians are leaving behind their previous projects, either out of boredom or out of fear of missing out on the great building boom of the late nineties, theory’s purported end is only the demise of a narrow construal of theory.”
— Varnelis, Kazys. “Critical Historiography and the End of Theory“. Journal of Architectural Education 52.4 (1999): 195-196.
“The first point raised by Trevor, about people not applying for courses because they feel they won’t get accepted, was echoed by Tom… While the fear of ‘missing out’ was mentioned by others.”
— Marsh, Ian. “Feel the Width: Teachers’ Expectations of an In‐service Course“. Journal of In-Service Education 13.2 (1987): 76-80.
“I was constantly aware of my marginal position as a participant and observer in the bars. I was reluctant to jump into one or two cross-sex or same-sex relationships in an evening at a bar for fear of missing out on important happenings of others in the bar and for fear of getting my personal life too intertwined with my research.”
— Allon, Natalie. “The Interrelationship of Process And Content in Field Work“. Symbolic Interaction 2.2 (1979): 63-78.
“The American fear of missing out, in this case, on better-quality sex or sex in more abundance, relates to Horney’s concept of ‘competitiveness’ in our culture.”
— Simon, Jane. “Love: Addiction or Road to Self-Realization?“. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 35.4 (1975): 359-364.
“…it was recognized that classes which are used to take the student a step beyond the materials are classes which a student will have a high incentive to attend for fear of missing out on points which will be covered on the examination.”
— Katz, June S., and Katz, Ronald S. “Teaching Methodology and Indonesian Legal Education“. Journal of Legal Education 27.2 (1975): 219-233.
Summary and conclusions
- The fear of missing out (FOMO) is the concern that people experience with regard to the possibility that they’re missing out or will miss out on rewarding opportunities.
- A common example of FOMO is being worried about missing events that your friends might attend, which can cause you to constantly check the social media platform that you all use.
- FOMO can negatively impact your health and wellbeing, and can lead to a range of other issues, such as problems in your relationships with others, or a tendency to rush into things.
- To overcome your FOMO, you should first identify when and where you experience it, which thought patterns and behaviors you engage in as a result of it, and why you experience it in the first place.
- Once you identify the nature of your FOMO problem, you can use relevant techniques to help you deal with it, such as removing FOMO triggers from your environment, making it harder for yourself to engage in FOMO-driven behaviors, and using nudges to help you avoid FOMO-based thought patterns.