The Fear of Missing Out
When I was in the fourth grade, I had a bad case of FOMO.
I contracted it when I realized that all of my classmates (or so it seemed) had Nickelodeon, and I didn't. They talked about cartoons and television shows watched the night before — something about a game show where the losing contestant was “slimed.”
One day, I decided to take this to the top.
“Dad, can we get cable?” I asked.
“Cable? Uh, no.”
“Why not? All of my friends have cable. And I'm bored.”
“Go outside or read a book.”
“Daaaaaaaaaad! Everyone else has it!”
“Buck up, little trooper.”
(That last line really was his response, by the way. Another classic Dad-ism was to wake me up for school by saying, “Time to make the doughnuts!” as cheerfully as possible.)
In my mind, every, single kid in fourth grade knew who got slimed except for me. But Dad wouldn't give in. He'd buy me any book, a microscope, a bike, or build me a clubhouse, but he wouldn't budge on cable. So when talk turned to television shows in the school cafeteria, I was the odd kid out. That was one of my first experiences with FOMO, the fear of missing out.
FOMO and the Joneses: Potato, potahto?
I attended SXSW Interactive this week, and there was a presentation about how marketers can tap into the fear of missing out.
When I first heard about FOMO, I thought it was another way of saying keeping up with the Joneses, and the two are pretty similar. Keeping up with the Joneses is conspicuous consumption that occurs when people compete with their peers by buying what what they buy and doing what they do. Your friend gets a new sports car, for example, and now you want to trade in your late-model Camry so as to appear to be just as successful.
FOMO, according to JWT, a marketing communications agency, 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.” For example, someone could be fearful of going to the hottest restaurant and ordering the wrong thing. Often FOMO leads to buying something — a bigger TV than your neighbor or booking a vacation with your friends because they're all going and you're afraid of missing out.
In both situations, people act based on perceived social pressures and fear of being out of the loop or excluded. The problem is that most of us can't continually give in to FOMO and reach our financial goals. One of my Facebook friends might post about buying a MacBook Air, another about a trip to Tahiti, and a third about eating at an exclusive restaurant downtown. Now I'm trying to “keep up” with everyone I ever knew, plus people I've never met in person.
Social media sets FOMO on fire
We humans seem to be hard-wired to worry about our status in relation to others and feeling included. But what was interesting were the findings on how FOMO is escalating because of the popularity of real-time, location-based, and social media tools. It's not just about what our peers in real life are doing, it's about happenings in our entire social network.
During the presentation, Ann Mack, director of trend-spotting at JWT, discussed findings from the their March 2012 trend report. She explained that because we're exposed to more of what other people are doing, we question more whether we're making the right choices, and not just when it comes to Kindle versus Nook, but even in life stages. If my best friend from kindergarten has three kids already, am I waiting too long? If my attorney cousin buys a sailboat, should I have picked a more lucrative career? (Note: These are random examples. If I did have an attorney cousin who owned a sailboat, I'd still want to be a writer, but I would have a new favorite cousin.)
Among American millennials (those aged 13-34), the findings included the following:
- 43% say social media has increased their FOMO
- 8 in 10 say people use social media to brag about their lives
- Millennials feel most left out when their peers: are doing something they're not (57%), find out about something before they do (46%), or buy something they haven't bought (36%)
- 50% said they spread themselves too thin trying to keep up with their peers
And in case missing out on the party wasn't enough, some people post photos of their group spelling out “FOMO” with their arms and hands (think Y-M-C-A, but F-O-M-O) to remind others that they're missing out. Ouch.
Do you suffer from FOMO?
According to JWT, the following are signs that you have an unhealthy amount of FOMO:
- You're always on your phone, checking your Facebook notifications, and texting friends, even when you're at a party, supposedly having a great time.
- When you're at home, you're still constantly checking Twitter, Facebook, and text messages.
- You have a hard time making a buying decision because something better might come along.
- You don't want to commit to making plans until you've heard from everyone and can pick the most exciting option.
- You think other people are having a better time, buying better things, or living happier lives based on their profile page or tweets.
- You feel anxious and inadequate after reading your friends' Facebook updates.
If those sound familiar, you might have a chronic case of FOMO. The good news is that it's possible to manage your FOMO. My prescription is as follows:
- Tell yourself it's okay to say no. Let's say you've set a budget because you want to pay off your credit card, and you've already exceeded your allotted amount for eating out. Your friends invite you to check out the new (really expensive) bistro that's getting rave reviews.
- It's okay to say no if you can't afford it. There will be other dinners, and if they're your friends, they should understand that you're paying off debt.
- Make an impulsive decision. What? That's crazy-talk on a finance blog! Hear me out. I don't mean to go to Target for socks and walk out with an iPad. I mean that sometimes you have to quit worrying about whether you're making the “best” buying decision or whether something better will come along in five minutes. For example, earlier today I was considering two wallets, one pink and one brown, and I couldn't make a decision. Would the brown one work with everything? Was the pink one more my style? I left the store so I could think about it some more, and also to think about what had just happened. It's okay to just pick something sometimes and be done with it! (But seriously you guys, brown or pink? Vote in the comments.)
- Unplug. I read a lot online, and I use Facebook, Pinterest, and now Twitter. I almost always have my e-mail open. But I try to unplug once a day with a book, piano practice, or by hanging out on the porch while my cat chases grasshoppers. I put my phone on silent when I'm eating or working out. It's not easy to remind myself to step away from the network, but it clears my head and calms my senses.
- If you have-to-have-now-or-you'll-die, put a pin on it. Similar to the 30-day rule, I bookmark things I want, then wait a couple of weeks to see if I still feel it's a must have. Sometimes I lose interest, other times I realize I already own something that serves the same purpose. If I still have my heart set on it, I can revisit the bookmark.
- Create reminders about your values. You've probably heard the advice about putting your diet goals on the refrigerator. I suggest putting your life and financial goals on your computer as wallpaper, and include visual representations of your goals. For example, maybe you want to retire early and travel the country in an RV, so you might use a photo of an RV. Find ways to remind yourself what you want so that you aren't sidetracked by what others are doing.
Finally, the last tip I have is the one that works most often for me, but it's a little cheesy, so promise not to laugh, okay? Okay. I'm going to hold you to that.
There was a quote I read (on Facebook) that said “…we always envy others, comparing our shadows to their sunlit sides.” (The source is The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers by Margaret George.) When I think that someone is “always” traveling or “always” knows what's going on, while I'm sitting on the couch or wondering why I'm not savvy enough to get free movie passes, I think about that quote and remember that each of us have our shadows and our sunlit sides. As J.D. recently said, we often form perceptions based on exceptions, not the rule.
Epilogue: I still don't have cable. Dad won that battle for life, it seems. So if you can tell me what's happening on The Walking Dead, I'd appreciate it. People on Facebook can't stop talking about it, and my FOMO is really flaring up.