Dr Dan Herman, Competitive Strategy, Innovation, Marketing, Branding



The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

by Dan Herman


I first observed this phenomenon that I later named "The Fear of Missing Out" in the mid 90's, while listening to consumers at focus groups and during individual in-depths interviews. Despite the variety of research topics and business categories being explored, most consumers expressed - at one time or another –a clearly fearful attitude towards the possibility of failing to exhaust their opportunities (and complementarily, to miss the expected joy associated with succeeding in doing so). It struck me as an extremely significant new development in consumer psychology, and in the following years I have been researching FoMO as a socio-cultural phenomenon, as a motivation, and as a personality factor. Having studied its implications for marketers, my belief is that this motivation might be one of the central factors in the decline of brand loyalty.  

What is FoMO? Look at the following diagram:

fomo dan herman


It all begins with a growing awareness of the virtually endless selection of options for the consumer to choose from. It develops further in accordance with the consumer's conceived ability to exhaust as many of the options that she would like to. If her conceived ability to exhaust is low relative to her reference group (now larger than ever), then she will use her imagination to build up a perception of what she is missing. The FoMO experience is based on the fear of – 'what will I miss because I don't have the necessary time or money, or because I do have another barrier of some kind?' That is an experience that feels somewhat like being a child in a beautiful colorful candy store, having only one quarter in the pocket. It is the same as putting an emphasis on that which we have not yet attained but want desperately to. 

As a motivation, the FoMO has five major manifestations discernible in most of us to varying degrees, and I would like to elaborate on them a little by giving you several illustrations for each one of the five: 

1. We waive no wave 

We strive to make the best use we can of our limited time while 'having it all': 

§  While in past decades we usually accepted the notion that a trade-off is necessary between pursuing a career and devoting oneself to family life and that making a choice is inevitable, nowadays many try to achieve both, plus social activities, hobbies, fitness training and more. This leads to a rather hectic schedule.  

  • Michael Tchong, a noted trend analyst, describes Time Compression on his website Ubercool (www.ubercool.com). "The new state of mind," he says, "had become a state of time". By 1996 already, 59% described themselves as busy, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. Since then, it only keeps getting worse. 

Here are some of the phenomena that time compression is propelling as depicted on www.ubercool.com: 

­   No time to shop — In 2002, only 23% of mall shoppers browsed, compared with 37% in 2000, according to ICSC Research. Time-strapped consumers spent US$55 billion in 2004 on retail gift cards, the plastic successors to gift certificates, up from US$13 billion in 1998, according to Valutec (July 2005) and Bain & Co. (July 2003). 

­   No time for leisure — Since 1973, the median number of hours that people say they work has risen from 41 a week to 49, according to Harris Interactive. Leisure time, meanwhile, dropped from 26 to 19 hours a week over the same period.  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that the number of anglers has dropped 12% since 2001. During the same five-year period, the number of hunters has fallen by 4%. 

A survey by employment firm Hudson found that more than half of U.S. workers fail to take all their vacation days, with 30% saying they use less than half their allotted time, and 20% taking only a few days instead of a week or two. That’s up from the 36% who said that they did not plan to take a full vacation in 2005, according to the “Overwork in America” study by the Families and Work Institute. 

­   No time to eat or cook — an amazing 59% of all U.S. meals are rushed, and 34% of all lunches are eaten on the run, according to National Eating Trends, a trend fueled by the $112 billion U.S. fast-food business. The share of dinners that came from takeout or a grocery freezer increased by 24% in the past decade, and is likely to overtake meals made from scratch in five years, predicts The NPD Group.  

­   No time to sleep — In the 1920s, the average American adult slept 8.8 hours each day. By 2005 that figure had declined to 6.9, nearly two hours less, according to a March 2005 Americapoll conducted for the National Sleep Foundation. Even infants now average almost 90 minutes less sleep a day than the 14-hour minimum doctors recommend, according to the National Sleep Foundation. 

­   No time for music — The first performances of “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” Wagner’s “Ring,” took an average of 14 hours and 20 minutes from 1876 to 1950. After 1960, the tempo increased and it took about 14 hours. The last complete performance by Hartmut Haenchen in 1998 took 13 hours and 30 minutes, nearly one hour less. 

­   No time for dating — Online dating and speed dating are having a major impact on the coupling scene, boosting the fortunes of services worldwide, including Match.com , New York’s HurryDate , Boston’s 8minuteDating , Lake Forest, Illinois’ 3MinuteDating and London’s Speedflirt . Some couples now get together for “dinner and PowerPoint ,” combining pleasure with work in order to save time, The Wall Street Journal recently reported 

­   No time for travel planning — In the past, consumers used to take months to plan their vacations. Now it’s a snap decision. In 2002, 64% of U.S. leisure travelers planned at least one of their vacation trips within two weeks of taking that trip.  

§  We are busier than ever - and not just adults. Children spend significantly more time doing homework, studying, carrying out planned activities and developing their skills, than did their counterparts several decades ago. In their book, "The Over-Scheduled Child", child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., and family-issues journalist Nicole Wise, describe the phenomenon of "Hyper-Parenting". One of its manifestations is the over-scheduling and over-enriching of our children. Lists and schedules, courses, programs and activities, meetings and appointments. "Parenting today has come to resemble a relentless to-do list" they say. David Elkind, Professor of Child Development in the Eliot Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University claims in his book "The Hurried Child", that parents push their children emotionally and intellectually too far, too fast. Today's parents think of their kids as Superkids. 

§  We apply the same uncompromising approach to the goods we buy. This is the era of 'this and that too': consumers want combinations of gourmet taste and low calorie content in food, low prices and high quality / design in lifestyle products, beauty and comfort in personal care, etc.  

§  In his book Faster, James Gleick describes the following behavior tagged Multitasking: "these days it is possible to drive, eat, listen to a book, and talk on the phone, all at once, if you dare. No segment of time – not a day, not a second – can really be a zero-sum game". The Myers Media Brand Tracker research (December 2001) estimates that nearly 80% of connected adults use both the television and computer simultaneously, and that 30% of adults in multi-channeled homes view TV and go online simultaneously. Similarly, we often 'zap' between television channels to view at least two programs at once. According to a poll published in Scientific American's MIND, a magazine dedicated to the brain and human behavior in the December 2004 issue, 90% of American adults are multitasking. Multitasked activities range from "cleaning the house, cooking and taking care of the kids" and "talking on the phone while reading or writing email" - to reading or grooming while driving and even eating while working out. Yet nearly six out of ten (57%) adults agreed that, despite being busier than ever, they often feel like they are getting less done.  

This tendency (as well as capability) is becoming more and more extreme in the newer emerging generations. While Gen Xers and Gen Yers are seasoned multitaskers themselves, now THE multitasking generation (or Gen M) is here. These kids are instant messaging while doing homework, eating ready-made meals, playing games online and watching TV. The 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that Americans aged 8 to 18 spend an average of 6.5 hours per day using electronic media. But due to the fact they are often using multiple types of technology simultaneously, this actually equates to 8.5 hours per day.  

§  Many people have more than one career during their lifespan and certainly work in several organizations. Consequently there is a preoccupation in both literature and media dealing with the 'second career' and there is a multitude of routes available for retraining. During the last decade or so, gold watches received by veterans of two, three or four decades of loyal employment in one company have become a term of derision. Many employees regularly scan ads by employers offering jobs (some even go to interviews), not because they want to switch their job, they only wish to be informed of available options…  

§  Many people live in more than one family unit during their lifetime and surely have more than one meaningful intimate relationship. This is, of course, common knowledge, yet in order to be empiric let me back it up with some data on divorce rates in developed countries: The Americans for Divorce Reform estimates (2009) that probably, 40 or possibly even 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce if current trends continue. In Belarus, Russia, Sweden, Latvia, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, divorce rates exceed 60%. In Belgium, Finland, Lithuania, the UK and Moldova, divorce rates exceed 50%. 

§  We witness an ever-growing population of singles experiencing difficulty to commit to one partner 'forsaking all others'. According to Time Out, in the year 2001, between 27% and 50% of the population in major European cities choose to be single! 

§  We also see the appearance of social phenomena like the DINK movement ("Double Incomes, No Kids" also known as ChildFree, Childless-by-Choice, KidLess or KidFree), founded by people who want to be free of children so as to be able to maximize their possibilities of enjoying life-opportunities to the fullest. 

It’s a growing phenomenon. The American Demographics Magazine projects that the number of married couples without children will rise to more than 31 million, by the year 2010. 

2. We are multi everything: 

We aspire to be as varied, multifarious and flexible as possible in all aspects of life: 

·         Hazel Rose Markus, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, says that "there isn't just one answer to the 'Who am I?' question". People who are considered more 'interesting' have a wide range of interests and occupations, they make changes in their appearance, their clothing style vary, and they exhibit openness to explore new concepts, designs and cuisines. They are the ones who tend to serve as models for imitation. It has become especially 'Bon Ton' to encompass elements seen as contradictory in the past and create personal clusters of interests. Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University, gives us the following description: "Observe the variety of behaviors the subject exhibits, from vegetarianism to weightlifting or from bungee jumping to helping the homeless. And note how often and how easily these behaviors change. Now move in closer, close enough to hear the specimen's thoughts. A jumble of voices will become audible: some bold, some whiny; some mature, some immature; some naive, some cynical. You'll pick up echoes of parents, friends and talk-show hosts; rapper-like boasts and Woody Allen-like anxieties". 

·         We legitimize and socially reward a wide, even contradictory, repertoire of behaviors, and the ability to change and adapt ('flexibility'). For example: Many people take pride in the ability to be tough and bossy at work, sensitive and affectionate with their close family, macho with their friends in the pub, and sophisticated while entertaining business associates visiting from abroad. It may be worthwhile remembering that in the not so distant past it was desirable to have 'a character', consistent and persistent.  

·         Lifestyle segmentations are no longer valid: while during past decades it was common and expected to segment and describe consumer groups according to values, attitudes and lifestyle characteristics (customer group "psychographic profile"), with the backing of theoretical and research approaches developed for this purpose, we can see that today many consumers 'belong' to different classifications on different days of the week and even during different hours of the day. 


3. We ride with the tide 

We try to be as up to date as possible: 

·         We attempt to keep abreast with news, new concepts, new fashions, new gadgets, technological developments, etc. 

·         We often value trying out new restaurants, coffee shops, bars and travel destinations, instead of having 'our usual place', or returning year after year to our favorite summer resort (this, of course, is a sharp departure from past preferences). The phenomenon of 'been there, done that’ has an enormous impact on our consumption choices.  

·         In the not so distant past we also used to have just one watch and one pair of eye glasses, but now we feel the urge to variegate and to renew our looks. 

  • "Variety-Seeking Behavior" is becoming the rule, rather than the exception. "Variety-Seeking Behavior" means that consumers routinely switch from one brand to another because they are motivated by the utility inherent in experiencing variety and in the change itself, irrespective of the brands he/she switches to or from.  

There are three major motivations for consumers seeking variety:  

Satiation: The benefit derived from a brand decreases with repeated consumption while competing brands become more attractive. It also happens that consumers do not find a single brand that satisfies all of the benefits they seek.  

Novelty/discovery/stimulation: Consumers are not satiated, but seek variety because a tempting, stimulating opportunity has been presented. Consumers are satisfied with their current brands but are willing to try something new or different for the fun or thrill of it, or just to satisfy their curiosity.  

The joy of choosing: Author Salman Rushdie wrote about some of the things he missed when he was in hiding: "You can't go into a shop expecting to buy a certain item, and then spot the item next to it, and see that is what you really wanted. The pleasure, you see, had been in the choosing."  

4. We're hopelessly plugged in 

We want almost constant availability and immediate communication so as not to miss any opportunity: 

·         Our cell phones are usually switched on, and when they ring we will push aside everything – and I mean EVERTTHING else and answer hysterically. 

·         We check our e-mail accounts often or better yet: receive email messagess without delay to our mobiles with 'push' technology. 

·         Due to all these communication devices, we are more connected than ever to other people, communication is far more frequent, and news travel fast. 

5. We are a "now society" 

We seek immediacy and instant gratification: 

·         We demand 24/7 services. 

·         Live coverage of world events is available to the interested anytime, anywhere, through various communication devices. On TV you often see simultaneous scrolls of even more information in text and numbers. 

·         More than ever before, we now consume fast food and microwave dinners ('Eat and Run' is a witty description used by James Gleik in "Faster"). On the street, we have coffee-to-go, and at home, instant coffee is by far the most popular kind of coffee drink. 

·         The 'One Click Ordering' at online shops has become a great success. 

·         The 1983 volume titled 'One-Minute Bedtime Stories' was published, comprising of traditional stories in a condensed format. The Amazon.com catalog now has more than 160 books that have the expression 'One-Minute' in their title. 

·         Aging is perceived as missing out and we cling to our youth for as long as possible. The anti-aging industry is no longer only about Botox, Retin-A face creams, plastic surgery and laser-based cosmetic procedures. The idea now is to turn back the vector of time using hormones, stem cells and various supplements believed to prevent the body's organs from deteriorating and eventually expiring. The industry even has its own professional authority: the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. Business is booming. It's a $30 billion industry despite the fact that some of the treatments are clearly risky while the benefits of others are unproven. And we haven't said anything yet about the fitness industry and the beauty industry. 


Missing out is unavoidable 

Missing out is physically inevitable. The Fear of Missing Out, on the other hand, is an emotional reaction resulting from the attitude of holding having options open to us – in high regard. My research shows that approximately 70% of all adults in developed countries experience FoMO to various degrees. The ability to cope well with FoMO correlates positively and significantly with financial success, social success and high levels of life satisfaction. One can only speculate regarding the direction of causality. Almost 30% cope well and are able to turn FoMO into a positive force in their lives. Another group of about 25% manages to function well but FoMO does make them somewhat unhappy. A little over 15% fail to cope effectively with FoMO and it tends to make their lives miserable.  


The blessings of FoMO 

Although "fear" has an unpleasant connotation, FoMO can be a good thing:  

·         It drives us to lead richer lives, filled with interest, excitement and pleasures.  

·         It motivates us to develop ourselves to the fullest extent and to reach achievements that reward us with feelings of satisfaction, might and worth. 

·         It leads us to behaviors that make us more interesting and attractive to others and get us their esteem. 

However, in order to realize those benefits we must face several challenges: 

·         We must develop an ability or skill for equilibrating the abundance of options, temptations and stimulations with our limited time, physical-mental-emotional capacities as well as limited financial resources - by prioritizing. 

·         We must 'know what we want', be able to choose, to direct ourselves, to focus, to achieve internal sense of balance and peace of mind. 

·         We must learn to lead complex lives, composed of varied activities and disconnected parts and manage efficiently our attention, time and other resources. 

·         We must also manage our composite identities. 


The curses of FoMO 

The fear of missing out might become a self fulfilling prophecy. The futile attempt to exhaust all available options can lead us to not realizing any option at all, and to missing all options altogether. People driven by FoMO, who haven't developed the necessary coping strategies and skills, typically encounter several malfunctions and difficulties in their lives: 

·         They feel flooded, overwhelmed and paralyzed, totally unable to orient themselves. 

·         They feel unable to commit to anything or to anyone – career, partner etc., because there are always other enticing possibilities, tangible or imagined. Every commitment is perceived as giving up all other could-have-beens. 

·         They lack to ability to persevere for long. 

·         They tend to overload their schedule and to be often late, always feeling trapped in an endless race and completely out of control. 


FoMO and customer loyalty 

FoMO is a sweeping phenomenon that has influenced customer behavior, as well as human behavior in general, with a great impact. As I have shown you, one of its most important implications for marketers of products and services of all kinds, is the demise of customer loyalty as we have known it, relied upon it, and capitalized upon it in the past.  



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