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We Asked Some Psychologists to Explain the Science Behind Your Crippling FOMO

Gigen Mammoser

Feeling bad about missing out on that concert or festival? You're definitely not alone.

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Writers, poets, and philosophers have continually searched for le mot juste, the right word, to describe human suffering. Of course there is dukkha, the Buddhist theory that pain arises out of attachment and impermanence; weltschmerz, the German term for ennui provoked by the clashing of the real world with an ideal one. And today there's FOMO (that's "fear of missing out"), for which there is no better sentiment to capture the anxiety or depression of a Friday night spent alone, Instagram-stalking your friends out doing better things, in a room lit by a single iPhone screen.

FOMO is only the latest symptom of technologically-mediated world-weariness. As easy as it seems to dismiss the term, like any other piece of slang, it actually has some depth. Dr. Amy Summerville, an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Miami University who studies regret, says, "Anytime there's something that captures the popular attention of what people think is happening to their own psychological experiences, a lot of times science will sit up and take notice."

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Dr. Abigail Scholer, an Associate Professor in social psychology at the University of Waterloo who specializes in motivation, echoes that sentiment, telling THUMP that expressions like FOMO help us "label and identify what it means to be human." Though neither said they were aware of any formal studies on FOMO, they both agreed that the term clearly overlaps with some pre-existing theories of social psychology.

Social interaction is deeply ingrained in humanity, "comparable to needing food and shelter," says Dr. Summerville. FOMO has a lot to do with that social necessity. Besides benchmarks for success in life like promotions at work, or getting that ripped festival body, time with friends is also extremely important, and the excitement that other people are experiencing can drive at our own feelings of accomplishment. There are going to be people "who are really going to not want to miss out on things and that's' going to be a bigger driver of their behaviour," says Dr. Scholer.

On the other hand, probably the most easily-identifiable emotion related to FOMO is regret. "It's sort of the emotional equivalent of physical pain, like you put your hand on a hot stove and it hurts," says Dr. Summerville. But with FOMO, that regret can be broadcast into the future, what's referred to as "affective forecasting"—trying to predict how we might feel based on events that haven't happened yet.

Photo via Henrik Dvergsdal/Wikimedia Commons

The good news however is that you're probably just worrying too much. "The research on that says, pretty consistently, that people overestimate how bad they are going to feel about something in the future," Dr. Summerville explains. "Those [feelings] tend to be way worse than the actual experience." Which is to say that the sob story you keep telling yourself about how much fun everyone is having without you at Coachella isn't nearly as bad as you're making it out to be.

FOMO also shares a close relationship with technology and social media—which can give unbridled, voyeuristic access into the lives of others through status updates and to a kaleidoscope of videos and images. That's particularly important for electronic music fans because, according to a study from 2015, they tend to be more active on social media platforms (EDM fans tweeted an average of 11 times per day, dwarfing the average Twitter user's 1.85 times per day). "[Social media] provides an ability to be doing much more constant social comparison," says Dr. Scholer. "For some people it might be motivating because it gives them ideas of things that they can do that they weren't doing, but for other people it could feel threatening, either momentarily or in the long term, because you're not a part of it."

"One of the things that we know," says Dr. Summerville, "is that [regret] comes from comparing reality to some imagined reality." And, that feeling gets stronger the easier an alternate possibility is to imagine—a football team's defeat is more crushing when it is only by two points than by twenty, because the outcome was so close. "Actually seeing the videos and all these curated Instagram pictures of exactly how much fun everyone was having makes it really easy to imagine what it would have been like to be at that party," says Dr. Summerville.

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She also notes the relevance of one of her previous studies on regret studies in which participants played a variation of blackjack. Losing players are "actually more interested in seeing what another card could have turned up for them." "When they are happy, they are less interested in that information. Seeing that other card actually tends to make them feel better," she says.

Knowing all this, what can be done to help overcome FOMO, besides turning card after card from a stack of Instagram photos? Dr. Summerville reiterates that outside of the idyllic party you've created in your head, there's a whole lot of stuff that's not only less fun, but downright shitty: sunburns, festival port-o-potties, or just getting so sloshed that you never even make it out of the campground all tend to be details that get ignored. It's good to bring down the fantasy a bit.

You should also be aware of the reasoning for your decisions for missing out. "Presumably you decided to stay home and crash on your couch because a bottle of wine and some Netflix sounded amazing," she adds. So pour another glass, put the phone down, and remind yourself that life is good, even if you are spending it with your cat and some cheap white zinfandel.

Dr. Summerville is on Facebook // Twitter

Gigen Mammoser is on Twitter.