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Here's what's really going on in your brain when you experience 'FOMO' - the fear of missing out

Here's what's really going on in your brain when you experience 'FOMO' - the fear of missing out

  • FOMO is the (sometimes all-consuming) feeling you're missing out on something.
  • It can be perpetuated by looking at other people's social media posts.
  • But according to some research, you may be more susceptible to FOMO if you are insecure.
  • Instead, you should focus less on potential losses of missing out and more on the gains of what you're actually doing.

Nobody can attend everything. Still, sometimes there's an event you really wanted to go to, but responsibilities got in the way. Maybe you had to work late, or you promised you'd go to your great aunt's 90th the same day your friend decided to throw the house party of the year.

Either way, fear of missing out - known as "FOMO" - affects us all sometimes. It's characterised as feeling anxious that something exciting or interesting is happening elsewhere. Social media can often perpetuate this anxiety, when you see posts and pictures about the wonderful time your friends are having without you, and the feeling can be all-consuming.

A post in Psychology Today discusses the scientific basis of FOMO, and the explanations for what's going on psychologically when we experience it.

In a new study, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, researchers from Carleton and McGill Universities in Canada asked first year students to keep a diary for seven days.

In particular, the researchers wanted to know if FOMO was associated with certain personality traits - openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism - and whether social media played a significant role.

The students received five alerts to complete a survey throughout the day, where they had to answer questions about their experiences. At the end of the semester, they filled out an online questionnaire about their well-being and satisfaction.

Results showed how FOMO was highest later on in the day and near the end of the week. Also, the students who studied and worked more and performed more "obligatory" tasks reported having greater FOMO.

Surprisingly, personality traits like neuroticism or extraversion had no impact on the amount of FOMO people felt. Still, FOMO was associated with fatigue, stress, and trouble sleeping.

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers looked at how social media affected FOMO, and found that overall, it didn't really matter how people heard of the activity they had missed out on. Hearing it from a friend compared to seeing it on social media produced the same amount of FOMO. However, it is important to consider the fact that someone is much more likely to see many other people's plans on social media than hear about them all in person.

The researchers were also interested in whether we feel FOMO regardless of how much fun we had at our alternative event. They asked participants to read a person's plans for the evening, and then an alternative activity they could do instead.

Participants always chose to stick to the plan, then were "reminded" of the alternative activity through social media or a friend. No matter how sociable the activity they chose, they experienced high levels of FOMO and felt negative and distracted when they found out about the alternative.

Some people are more susceptible to FOMO than others

Overall, students may be likely to feel FOMO because of the pressure of "making the most" of their university experience. In fact, a study from the University of British Columbia found that 48% of first year students have less of a sense of social belonging, and believe their peers are more socially connected than they actually are.

FOMO could also depend on our own satisfaction. One study by marketing communications company James Walter Thompson found that FOMO contributes to a person's dissatisfaction with their own social lives, and the fact they feel like they have less. It triggers negative feelings like boredom and loneliness, which has an impact on someone's psychological well-being.

According to a post by Eric Barker in TIME, people who are already insecure may be more susceptible to feeling this way. For example, when faced with excessive Instagram and Facebook posts about other people's lives, it can feel like you're always out of the loop with someone.

"But when you're caught in the loop of FOMO you tune out the real world and tune in to the fake one," Baker wrote. "And that's what the research shows: people with FOMO stop paying attention to life and turn to social media for their happiness cure."

In other words, it may be all about obsessively worrying that your experiences aren't objectively better than anyone elses, rather than your life actually lacking in any way.

According to psychologist Nick Hobson, in Psychology Today, a way to combat FOMO could be to focus less on potential losses of missing out and more on the gains of what you're actually doing.

"Sure. Easier said than done," he wrote. "But until the perfect solution arrives, in the meantime take comfort in knowing that FOMO reduces with age. So no need to dread that next birthday."