“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
- Eleanor Roosevelt
In fact, as the FOMO origin story, and my role in its creation, has attracted interest, I’ve come to learn that my part in this improbable saga was actually somewhat inevitable. In a sense, FOMO is part of my DNA. In his paper “Following the Joneses: FOMO and conspicuous sociality,” Prof. Joseph Reagle traces FOMO back to an early 20th century comic strip called “Keeping up with the Joneses,” about a social climber named Aloysius who struggles to match the exploits of his neighbors, the Joneses. There’s a rather stunning coincidence that binds Aloysius and me. His full name was Aloysius P. McGinis. So, while we’re separated by one “n,” it’s clear that Aloysius and I have a lot in common. He was the first McGin(n)is to have FOMO, but he certainly wasn’t the last.
So, given that FOMO has been around for longer than you might have realized, I’d like to introduce you to the idea of seeing FOMO as a natural consequence of the human experience that has become an epidemic thanks to the hyperconnected nature of our modern era.
Everyone knows about FOMO, but what is the opposite of the fear of missing out? One idea I’ve been thinking about for a long time is the concept of Relatedness. This idea comes from a psychological model called Self Determination Theory, which represents a way of thinking about humans as social animals.
Even if you’re an introvert, healthy humans need to feel connected to a community of some kind- a literal neighborhood, a subculture, a national identity, an extended family, a sports team, or a YouTube celebrity fanbase, You get it. Swap in the word “tribe,” and you’ll get a sense of how essential the idea of belonging is to a human.
We humans do pretty well alone, as long as we’re smart, strong, healthy, and well-prepared. But very few people hit the jackpot and enjoy all of those qualities and blessings at the same time. Thus, if we want to do big things and succeed over the long run, we need to cooperate.
In order to cooperate, humans have to:
a) trust each other,
b) find ways to communicate, and
These are skills we all learn- social skills- and we figure out many of them naturally, without noticing, as we grow up. Some of them have to be taught, and sometimes, when we encounter a new situation, like a job at a new company or a new project with a new team, we have to learn them all over again. When we don’t do this well, it feels awkward, and affects our ability to get things done.
Stack overflow is fancy programmer speech for “too much at once.” FOMO begins when our brains get stack overflow- too much information from too many sources when we’re just trying to get from Point A to Point B in our everyday lives. When we need this much information to make the right choice, THIS MUCH can drive us to make struggle with decisions and get distracted.
While our brains are amazing, they’re designed to operate in a very different setting from the one we live in today. Think about the following: Famed scientist Robin Dunbar studied a bunch of primates, humans included, and worked out that we’re designed to have social relationships with a maximum of about 150 people. This figure - know as Dunbar’s number - has become a rule of thumb for human relations.
If you’re thinking that 150 sounds like a pretty big number of people with whom to maintain social relationships, step back and do the math. How many people are in your family? How many people are at your office? How many people do you run into every day? Now think about how many Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, WhatsApp, iMessage, Snapchat, and Instagram connections you maintain and add in all of the people from your World of Warcraft clan and your Game of Thrones Reddit thread. Ugh. If I add up all of my connections, I’m well over 20,000! Yikes. Thanks to technology and social networking tools, we now regularly push our social universe beyond our brain’s ability to balance, compare, and accurately interpret all the connections we have. The consequence, my friends, is FOMO.
We may not be able to fundamentally change the way our society is currently organized (although, remember, it wasn’t always this way, so we can choose how our society looks if enough of us agree on something). We also may not be able to throw away our devices, and a lot of us just can’t #quitfacebook. Still, we are sentient beings armed with smarts and free will, and we are the ones in final control of what we let into our brains and our lives and what we do with all of that information.
So, how can you apply this really long psychology and anthropology lesson to beating FOMO? If you’ve been a regular reader, you’ve already got some tools to spot FOMO (and please, stay tuned for more!). When you feel pangs of FOMO, like you’re being left behind by the tribe, being voted off the island, or trailing behind the hunting party, try asking: