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November 18, 2013

Just Say 'No' to FOMO

By Linnea N. Meyer '14  |  november, 2013, Issue 2
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Got FOMO? According to Linnea, understanding what drives it can be the best cure.


FOMO, a.k.a., Fear Of Missing Out. As MBA students, we've all heard of it and, chances are, we've all got it. For first-years, you have countless options at your feet – from classes to careers to cool social outings – so you want to try all of them to make the most of the MBA experience. For my fellow second-years, we know these options are soon coming to a close, so we want to take advantage of them to make the most of the time we have left. It's classic FOMO, all around...

...and it drives most of us crazy! Good-old common sense – plus the bags under our eyes – tells us that our FOMO is no good, burning us out as we frantically and futilely try out everything that interests us. FOMO is running us to the ground, and yet we cannot seem to shake it.

Today, it's time to give the data-driven arguments of behavioral science a shot at making the case against FOMO, exposing it as a fundamentally flawed concept by which to live our lives. Because if there's any antidote to Boothie FOMO, it's going to be data.

The "fear" in FOMO is exaggerated. At its root, our fear of missing out is a fear of regret: We're only afraid of missing out on an opportunity when we're afraid of regretting missing out later on. However, this fundamental fear underlying FOMO is way overblown. Behavioral science suggests that the future regret we fear may not actually be so bad. Social psychologist Dan Gilbert and his team have run several studies finding that people tend to forecast far more regret than they end up experiencing. As he states in a 2004 study: "People are remarkably good at avoiding self-blame and hence they may be better at avoiding regret than they realize." Turns out we're pretty good at living with our choices, so the extreme fear behind our FOMO is unfounded.

FOMO itself makes us "miss out." FOMO arises not simply from too many options, but also from too little time to explore them. FOMO thus transforms time into a scarce resource that we're intently – even obsessively – focused on spending wisely.

Behavioral science suggests that FOMO's fixation with time may end up making us "miss out" more. A 2012 study by our own Professor Anuj Shah finds that people experiencing a scarce resource such as time or money are subject to "attentional neglect;" as they increasingly attend to problems involving that scarce resource, they necessarily neglect others. Boothies are no exception! With FOMO, we focus so much on managing our time that we often neglect our other resources, like health, happiness and quality relationships. Ironically, FOMO itself makes us miss out on a lot more than we realize.

FOMO is set up to fail. Effectively pursuing a FOMO strategy takes considerable self-control. Given too little time and too many opportunities, we can't afford to get off track, tempted or distracted.

Yet behavioral science suggests that FOMO itself may undermine self-control. A 2010 study by Marketing Professor Jing Wang highlights how making tough tradeoffs between options – where none obviously "wins" – can lead to cognitive depletion, including reduced resistance to temptation. FOMO is defined by such tough tradeoffs, so it's no surprise that we often find ourselves getting distracted and never quite fulfilling our ambitious FOMO goals. FOMO thus depletes the very self-control on which it depends.

Given FOMO's fundamental flaws, perhaps the only thing for us to fear is not missing out, but the fear of missing out itself!

Last Updated 11/19/13
Last Updated 11/19/13