Worried that everyone else is doing something cool without you? You may have FOMO — Fear of Missing Out. Even worse, a new study finds, you may be less satisfied with your life than the average person.
People high in FOMO, as the online acronym would have it, feel less competent, less autonomous and less connected with others than people who don't worry about being left out, according to the study published in the July issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
But what's bad for individuals may just be good for Facebook: People high in FOMO were also more likely to use social media, seemingly driven by a need to see what's going on when they're not around. [What Really Scares People: Top 10 Phobias]
"Fear of missing out acts as an important kind of waystation," study researcher Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England, told LiveScience. "It's the thing that connects a lot of what we think of as individual differences to social media."
The fear of missing out
Przybylski was inspired to study FOMO by a 2011 New York Times article on the phenomenon, in which a writer bemoaned her inability to enjoy a nice evening at home as her friends tweeted, Instagrammed and otherwise broadcasted their amazing evenings out right to her smartphone.
"I was stunned that no one in psychology or cyberpsychology or communications had actually done any research on this topic," Przybylski said.
First, Przybylski and his colleagues needed a way to measure FOMO. They tested a 32-item questionnaire on 672 men and 341 women, most from the United States and India and the rest scattered around the globe, and narrowed the questions down to 10 that focused on people's psychological fear of missing out. (A version of the questionnaire is now online at ratemyfomo.com.)
Next, the researchers used that questionnaire to rate the FOMO of a national sample of 2,079 22- to 65-year-old United Kingdom residents. They also asked the participants about their social media engagement, their life satisfaction and how autonomous, competent and connected to others they felt in their daily lives.
The less people felt autonomy, competence and connectedness in their daily lives, the more they felt FOMO, the results revealed. People high in FOMO also used social media more.
Social media and FOMO
It's not completely clear from the survey whether using social media drives FOMO or whether FOMO drives social media use, Przybylski said, but a statistical analysis of the data suggests that the lack of autonomy, competence and connectedness drives FOMO, which in turn leads to the urge to check Facebook and Twitter constantly. It's likely that FOMO varies according to a person's experiences, Przybylski said, but the study couldn't get at how the feeling changes over time.
A third study of 87 undergraduates found that people high in FOMO had more positive emotional experiences and more negative emotional experiences when checking Facebook than people without much fear of missing out. In other words, FOMO is linked to more intense emotions around social media. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the high-FOMO students were also more likely than their low-FOMO counterparts to be checking Facebook and other social media sites during their class lectures.
Even more frightening, Przybylski said, was that high-FOMO students were more likely to admit to distracted driving habits, including texting or emailing while driving. Fear of missing out likely has to do with people's ability to self-regulate and focus on the moment, he said.
"For people who feel very secure in their relationships, their relationships are important to them, but they don't feel compelled to always be connected," Przybylski said. Social media may not create the tendency, he said, but it likely exacerbates it by making sharing so easy.
"Sometimes," he said, "it's good to insulate yourself from the world of possibilities."
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.