We have a FOMO problem. Chances are that you are already familiar with the term FOMO. As you probably know, it is the acronym for the Fear Of Missing Out. Even before we knew it as FOMO, we have all experienced that feeling before. In the days prior to social media, we have all had times such as when our friends went to the beach, and we were unable to go. We were, understandably, bummed out. We were disappointed that we were missing out on all the fun. But with social media, the feeling of FOMO has become much more common and intense. Why do we have such a FOMO problem these days? There are a number of reasons, so let’s dive in! By understanding these reasons better, we can learn to avoid the trap of the FOMO problem.
Why Do We Have a FOMO Problem?
I’m a fan of Shankar Vedantam’s podcast Hidden Brain. There’s a relevant episode to the FOMO problem on a recent episode entitled, When It Comes to Our Lives on Social Media, ‘There’s Always Another Story’. It helped to clarify some aspects of FOMO that I’ll explain here. So, be sure to check out that episode. However, the entire podcast is wonderful!
Prior to that particular podcast, I’ve given a lot of thought about FOMO because of my background as a psychologist an interest in cyberpsychology (i.e., how technology affects us). I experience FOMO myself at times, mainly because of reading others’ Facebook posts. Why do we have a FOMO problem in the first place? One of the main reasons is because of social comparison.
We evolved to be concerned with status and power. Throughout our evolutionary psychology, there have always been concerns for status and power. Where do we stand in the pecking order? This is important because, to survive and pass on our genes, we need to ensure that we are attractive to potential mates. Stereotypically, females need to show that they are both healthy and attractive. These are signals to males that they are likely to be able to bear healthy children. Males need to show they are strong, healthy, and have power. This can signal to potential females that they have good genes and can be providers. In ways, we are in competition with one another to ensure that we are not at the bottom of the pecking order. Social comparison is thus hardwired into us so that we check our status by referring to others.
Social Comparison on Steroids
The problem is that we evolved to be in a world very different from today. Basically, we existed as hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years. For the most part, this was in tribes of no more than 150 people. According to University of Oxford anthropologist and psychologist Dr. Robin Dunbar, we can only maintain a maximum of about 150 stable social relationships. Our brains are unable to handle any more than that effectively. This is known as Dunbar’s Number. Thus, our social comparisons were limited to that number as well.
With social media, we can create connections with hundreds or even thousands of people. So, whether it is in the form of Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat…or all three, we can now compare ourselves with hundreds of more people than nature designed us. But this isn’t the only problem. There is another aspect of social comparison that really gets us. It is the curated image of ourselves that we portray on social media.
The Curated Self
What we see and post on social media are not depictions of reality. Most people tend to post positive events and images. This is known as curation. We don’t post selfies with bedhead in the early morning after a bender or rough night. We don’t post pictures or videos of our kids fighting or when we fight with our partners. We don’t post about mundane trips to the grocery store or poop-scooping the backyard. We tend to portray ourselves and our lives in a positive light. We want to show others that our lives are interesting and exciting. This is natural and, at least to some extent, this can contribute to a FOMO problem. We see others’ fun-filled trips and excursions, and we feel that our own lives don’t measure up. We are socially comparing ourselves to the curated images of many hundreds of our friends and acquaintances.
Missing Out on What?
This is where that Hidden Brain podcast was particularly illuminating. From research cited in that podcast, what we fear missing out on is the engaging social experiences of others. We are social animals by nature. To survive and thrive, we must have positive social relationships. When people post, they often post about engaging social events and interactions. So, we might go out to dinner with a friend, but then we see posts from another friend who went to a happy hour and then to see live music with a group of friends. Although we might have enjoyed our dinner with our friend, when we see the other posts, we fear that missed out on a greater opportunity to build social connections.
One can see that for teens and young adults this would be particularly problematic. As we gain independence from our parents but don’t have families of our own, our friends are everything. We naturally want to ensure that we are building strong social networks. The FOMO problem is that when we see posts on social media of others building social connections, we fear that we are missing out on those opportunities.
Before the age of social media, we would still miss out on those opportunities. But the big difference is that now, we actually see what we are missing out on. Moreover, it’s the curated version of it. Our friends might not post about how the restaurant was too loud and cold or that the band they saw sounded like screeching cats.
The Great Irony
Here is the great irony of FOMO. As we look to others’ social media posts and experience FOMO, we miss out on what we are experiencing in the moment. Our constant checking of social media and comparing our experiences to others is what makes our current experiences less enjoyable. Thus, we miss out on the present moment by trying to see what we are missing out on. In a way, the fear of missing out causes us to miss out.
We need to realize that to fully enjoy the present, we need to be less enmeshed with social media. We don’t have to give it up completely, of course. There is good in social media. But, as the saying goes, too much of a good thing isn’t good. We do have a FOMO problem, and it’s not going to go away on its own. The nature of social media is not likely to change, but we can change our relationship with it. The bottom line is that for our happiness, we need to be sure that we are connecting more with one another and less with social media.
It my next post, I’m going to talk about the problem of FOOMO. Never heard of it? I made it up, but chances are you are familiar with that feeling too, and it can create problems with social media as well. Stay tuned!