Dan Ariely on How ‘Fear of Missing Out’ Works

Duke behavioral economist describes how ‘FOMO’ is tied to regret, imagined possibilities and social media

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains how 'fear of missing out' works.Some reflections on the fear of missing out (FOMO)

Posted by Dan Ariely on Monday, April 20, 2015

Have you ever felt that you were missing out on something? Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, explains how “fear of missing out” (or “FOMO”) taps into our brain's ability to imagine possibilities, fuel regret and cause anxiety. Here are three key takeaways:

  1. FOMO depends on our concept of regret.When we evaluate our lives, we often compare ourselves to “where we could have been.” The difference between our current situation and other imagined possibilities produces feelings of either happiness or regret.
  2. Regret is magnified when we feel closer to a happier alternative.Ariely uses examples of an Olympic medalist in second place versus third place or a passenger missing a flight by two minutes versus two hours to illustrate how our proximity to a better outcome can increase our feelings of regret. When an Olympic silver medalist misses first place by a hair, it is easier for him or her to imagine marginal events that could have happened differently and changed the course of the competition. Similarly, when we barely miss an opportunity that could have made us happier, it is easier to obsess over all the details that may have prevented us from getting there. This thought process exacerbates our feelings of regret and anxiety.
  3. Social media fuels regret by supplying alternative possibilies.Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram prompt us with options of “where we could have been,” whether it is with vacation photos, over-filtered images of food or invitations to exciting events. This constant feed of what others are doing — and what we can easily imagine ourselves doing — activates our sense of regret and inflates our fear of missing out.