In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is fear of missing out (FOMO).
Fear of missing out, more commonly known as FOMO, is a form of social anxiety (although not a social anxiety disorder). It involves a pervasive apprehension that others might be engaging in rewarding activities that you could miss out on.
The concept of FOMO isn’t a brand new thing. For example, feeling that you’re missing out because you’re the only one of your friends who’s single is a variation of FOMO, and it’s nothing new. Keeping up with the Joneses is another variation.
“Fear of missing out” was first used to describe this concept in a 1996 paper by marketing expert Dan Herman, who wrote: “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.” The acronym FOMO first appeared in 2004 in the Harvard Business School’s magazine The Harbus, and It made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.
Przybylski and colleagues developed a Fear of Missing Out scale (FOMOs) to quantify FOMO for research purposes. Items on the scale include “I get anxious when I don’t know what my friends are up to” and “When I have a good time it is important for me to share the details online (e.g. updating status).”
Cognitive and emotional factors
There are a number of messy things in the head that can feed into FOMO. A major contributing factor is the desire for interpersonal attachments and a need to belong, but at the same time feeling socially excluded and worthless.
Envy may accompany FOMO, but the two are considered distinct constructs. Envy involves wishing you could have what another person has, whereas FOMO is more diffuse, not focusing on a specific individual and what they have.
The desire to conform and perceived peer pressure contribute to FOMO. If other people are doing something, shouldn’t you be doing it too? On social media, you don’t see what other people are having to sacrifice to do whatever you see them doing in that quick post, which makes it difficult to understand the context. It may feel overwhelming trying to do what everyone else is doing, when in reality, other people are only doing what they themselves are doing, not what everyone else is doing.
According to self-determination theory, psychological satisfaction relates to one’s competence, autonomy, and relatedness. High levels of FOMO have been associated with low levels of psychological satisfaction. FOMO has also been linked with lower mood and overall well-being.
Behavioural Consequences of FOMO
FOMO leads people to spend large amounts of time on social media (and in particular Facebook and Instagram) in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of missing out and the associated anxiety. Social media also facilitates comparison to others.
FOMO can change people’s “in real life” experiences. It can make them less likely to repeat, at least in the short term, an activity they’ve already done, as there’s always something new to make sure they’re not missing out on. FOMO can occur even while engaging in enjoyable activities, worsening one’s evaluation of current experiences. Sounds kind of like the anti-mindfulness.
In a study of Flemish adolescents, high levels of FOMO were associated with both problematic social media use and phubbing behaviour (I learned a new word—phubbing is apparently what you call it when someone is ignoring who they’re with in person because they’re on their phone).
Missing out? Yes please
Sign me up for missing out. I don’t like people, I don’t care what they’re doing, and I don’t want to do what they’re doing. I wasn’t always this anti-humanity, but even back when I was more social, I was okay with missing out. It probably comes from a combination of being very independent and being very clear on what I do and do not like (that’s where the stubborn moose aspect comes in, too).
One of the things I like about WordPress is that you don’t get stuck in the same kind of infinite scroll action going on on social media platforms. Infinite scroll is a win for platforms and advertisers, but it has so much potential for crazy-making for the user (i.e. the product, not the customer).
Do you tend to be prone to FOMO? Do you think there’s anything social media platforms should be doing differently in relation to FOMO?
- APA gradPSYCH Magazine: Do you fear missing out?
- Franchina, V., Vanden Abeele, M., Van Rooij, A. J., Lo Coco, G., & De Marez, L. (2018). Fear of missing out as a predictor of problematic social media use and phubbing behavior among Flemish adolescents. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(10), 2319.
- Hayran, C., Anik, L., & Gürhan-Canli, Z. (2020). A threat to loyalty: Fear of missing out (FOMO) leads to reluctance to repeat current experiences.&PloS one, 15(4), e0232318.
- Herman, D. (2000). Introducing short-term brands: A new branding tool for a new consumer reality. Journal of Brand Management, 7(5), 330-340.
- Przybylski, A. K., Murayama, K., DeHaan, C. R., & Gladwell, V. (2013). Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1841-1848.
- Wikipedia: Fear of missing out
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.