Understending FoMO


Some background

I initially became aware of the phenomenon I named FoMO – Fear of Missing Out in 1996, during a focus group study for a client of mine.

It struck me as an extremely significant new development in consumer psychology, and in the following years I have been researching The FoMO as a socio-cultural phenomenon, as a motivation, and as a personality factor. The summary below is based on my findings and observations.

In 1998 I began working on a new methodology of marketing and branding designed to cater to the needs of FoMO driven customers, I named it Think Short (as opposed to the conventional, at the time, Think Long exclusive approach in marketing and branding). Its central tool is the Short Term Brand – STB.

In 2000 I defined and described FoMO in an article published in the Journal of Brand Management.

Numerous additional articles followed on various marketing and branding websites, some in translation to several languages. In 2005 a chapter on FoMO by me was included in an academic textbook: Consumer Behavior: Implications for Marketing Strategies Edited by G. Radha Krishna, Icfai University Press.

In my 2008 book Outsmart the MBA Clones: The Alternative Guide to Competitive Strategy, Marketing and Branding published by Paramount Books (New York), I also devoted a chapter to FoMO.

What is FoMO?

FoMO is experienced as a clearly fearful attitude towards the possibility of failing to exhaust available opportunities and missing the expected joy associated with succeeding in doing so. Simply put, it is concentration of attention on the empty half of the glass.

To understand FoMO please examine the following diagram:

fomo diagram
It all begins with a growing awareness of the virtually endless selection of attractive options for the consumer to choose from. Then there’s 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 due to social media), 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.
We must remember that 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.

The Origins of FoMO

The experience of FoMO is the result of a cognitive and emotional process of evaluating one’s ability to exhaust opportunities against three major perceptions:

  1. Awareness of attractive opportunities.
  2. A basic sense of importance, control over one’s life and capableness which translates into “I should be able to exhaust all the opportunities I want”.
  3. A perceived norm of opportunity exhaustion by others.

Each one of these three perceptions can either heighten the level of FoMO or lower it. These three perceptions were shaped in our culture and society by long term trends and processes.

The proliferation of options and opportunities

Three technological revolutions;

  1. The transportation revolution (airplanes, sea vessels, trains, cars, even space-shuttles.)
  2. The communication revolution (TV, wireless, mobile, the internet, etc.)
  3. The information revolution (computers, IT systems, the internet again, digital everything), and the resultant globalism, exposed us to a flabbergasting variety of possibilities in all areas of our lives.

The recent rise of social media and the developments in mobile devices’ technology increased exponentially our immediate awareness the myriad of options available to us.

The innumerable possibilities that rainbow before our eyes are enflaming our imagination. We got ourselves addicted to having options.

Variety-Seeking Behavior” is becoming the rule, rather than the exception. “Variety-Seeking Behavior” means that people routinely switch from one option to another because they are motivated by the utility inherent in experiencing variety and in the change itself.

There are three major motivations for consumers seeking variety:

  1. Moving away from satiation.
  2. Novelty/discovery/stimulation.
  3. The joy of choosing.


The evolution of our basic sense of importance, control and capableness

In the traditional communities of the 19th century, even in western civilization, the right to choose was completely non-existent. Now, we are compelled to choose almost everything.

Several 20th century ideologies (such as feminism, socialism, capitalism, and modern democracy) helped develop both our sense of self worth and our ability to choose.

The exposure to various and numerous possibilities undermined our belief in absolutes; this is the basis of post-modernity. Together with urbanism this fact has weakened traditional social structures, institutionalized sources of legitimacy and as well as authorities in general.

Individualism triumphed. The individual now faces ‘culture’, ‘society’ and even ‘the world’, without the mediation of a community. Our communal affiliation is multiple and temporary, in most cases. As a result, the individual has become the source of all standards: individual taste, individual preferences and individual choices.

The shortening lifespan of the interpersonal commitment, the changes in living locations, living surroundings and living style, all those brought up the realization and internalization of the idea that commitment is not forever, therefore the only thing one will ever have forever is oneself.

The fast pace of changes during the 20th century has eroded the status of tradition and ‘elderly wisdom’ in exchange for admiring novelty and worshipping youth. The result is a steep rise in the influence of kids and teens on life styles and on familial purchase decisions.

Consequently, the ability to make decisions develops at a young age, consumption begins at infancy, and research shows that the first word uttered by a third of all toddlers is not mommy or daddy but a brand name of some sort.

After the High-Tech revolution in the 90′s, and the internet revolution, X-geners and Y-geners already live in a world molded by their own generation. Cultural heritage becomes to a great extent – irrelevant.

A new phenomenon emerged which I call “The Sudden Rise to Greatness of the Little Person”. This trend praises the personal importance of every individual, and the value of his or her life. The global success of “reality television” starring ordinary people is one of the most visible manifestations of this trend.

Another notable illustration is the centrality of user-created content, Wikis and collaborative creation in Web 2.0. The following and fandom of ordinary people on Facebook, Twitter and the like, is yet another example.

Many of the major trends observed by TRENDWATCHING.COM exemplify beautifully “The Sudden Rise to Greatness of the Little Person”.

Here are some examples:

  • LIFE CACHING: Collecting, storing and displaying one’s entire life, for private use, or for friends, family, even the entire world to peruse (a trend fueled by a need for self-worth, validation, control, vanity, even immortality).
  • MASSCLUSIVITY: ‘Exclusivity for the deserving masses’.
  • MASTER OF THE YOUNIVERSE: empowered consumers create their own playgrounds, their own comfort zones, and their own universe.
  • MINIPRENEURS: a vast army of consumers turning entrepreneurs.
  • CUSTOMER-MADE: The phenomenon of corporations creating goods, services and experiences in close cooperation with consumers.


The perceived norm of opportunity exhaustion by others

The Reagan-Thatcher era praised the de-regulation of the business sector and the world capital movement, and created a new situation in which financial wiz-kids in their 20′s and 30′s bought and sold giant corporations, sometimes breaking them apart, and got 7-digit pay checks due to their ability to identify changes and reach decisions in split seconds.

The new economy of the 90′s and head-spinning success stories created a feeling that everything was possible and within reach. Suddenly new and unfamiliar professions and positions came up.

New success skills emerged. Entrepreneurs in their 20′s created hundred million dollar capitals in just a few years.

The media, and recently the social media, expose us to stories about people’s lives and achievements all over the world. Social comparison becomes broader in scope and more intense.

Our reference group (which had once consisted of our immediate surrounding) is extending and the comparing occurs more frequently.

The Consequences of FoMO

FoMO is a major contributing factor to 10 pervasive psychological and socio-cultural phenomena and developing trends shaping our current lives.

As you go through the following list take notice how each and every one of them is either an expression or a result of our FoMO propelled craving to have options available to us and of our Sisyphean attempt to exhaust as many of them as possible:

  1. Nowadays many people try to pursue a career, enjoy family life plus social activities, hobbies, fitness training and more.
  2. We are constantly connected via our mobile devices and social media, available to communicate in every possible way.
  3. We now participate in communities rather than belong to them. We take part of several different communities, virtual or real at any given time, on a temporary basis, avoiding total commitment to any one of them.
  4. 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.
  5. Our lives are characterized by ‘nowness’ and we are quick to respond to opportunities and to adopt new behaviors, styles, products and brands. Accordingly, we do not persist.
  6. As part of our ‘nowness’ we are constantly on the lookout for new experiences preferring instant gratifications to the good things which come to those who wait.
  7. We are horrified at the thought of aging, the ultimate missing out. We try every anti-aging preventative means, undergo plastic surgery and cosmetic treatments, use makeup and look for the fashion trends in the lower age groups in order to look younger.
  8. Many people live in more than one family unit during their lifetime and surely have more than one meaningful intimate relationship.
  9. Many men and women experience mid-life crises and choose to take a break from their lives to explore different experiences.
  10. Relocations to different cities and countries (as well as other types of mobility) are common in our present day societies. We want to sample life elsewhere and find out what new possibilities they hold for us.


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.

My research shows that approximately 70% of all adults in developed as well as developing 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.

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 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.


Why Now?

Interestingly, FoMO has become more accentuated as we recover from the economic crisis. It seems that the crisis made very tangible for us what we might miss in our lifetime due to external circumstances.

This near-miss, for most people, enflamed FoMO. One could expect that FoMO will weaken following the crisis and as we become more disillusioned and realistic. The very opposite occurred and FoMO is peaking now.

Two factors contribute greatly to this outcome:

  • Facebook and the booming of social media in general.
  • The mobile revolution.

Both constantly expose us to an overwhelming number of enthralling opportunities which we will inevitably miss the most of.

Consequences for Marketers

These are very trying times for marketers dealing with FoMO driven consumers. One of the implications of FoMO is the demise of customer loyalty as we have known it, relied upon it, and capitalized upon it in the past.

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.”

Consumers now live very changeful lives in almost every aspect of their existence. They are accustomed to change and to incessant newness. There is an unprecedented consumer readiness and willingness to try new products and brands that erode brand loyalty.

Realistically speaking, we already live in the Post-Customer-Loyalty Era. In the Post-Customer-Loyalty Era consumers value, actively seek and quickly adopt novelties.

This trend has already intensified competition and given rise to perpetual innovation. The ‘Flat World’ both increases our potential marketing reach and lowers barriers to entry in most markets. However, marketers are now compelled to pull one (different) rabbit after another from their hat, so to speak, and to be true magicians succeeding at it for the duration of their careers.

In order to cater to this need, I devoted many years to developing the Think Short methodology.

Think Short is an integrative and comprehensive method which provides specialized tools for creating, branding, launching and managing diverse innovative ‘marketables’ (products, services, projects, retail concepts, entertainment venues, etc’), specified to penetrate the market rapidly, arouse immediate consumer enthusiasm and become sweeping successes in terms of sales, revenues and profits.

Interested in FoMO?

Would you like to invite Dr. Dan Herman to speak on FoMO at your organization’s event?

Dr. Herman’s keynotes and other lectures as well as his training workshops are adapted to the concerns and interests of the specific audience and to the requirements of the organizers.
Please contact us via email: contact@danherman.com.