Aug 08 2022

The Psychology of FOMO

One of the many unintended consequences of social media is what is popularly referred to as FOMO – fear of missing out. People see all the wonderful things people are doing and buying in their social media profiles, and fear that they are missing out on the good life, or the latest trend, or perhaps some investment opportunity. This is the social media equivalent of “keeping up with the Joneses”. FOMO results from a basic human psychological tendency, to determine our own happiness by comparing ourselves to some relative standard, whether that’s our neighbors, our social group, or what we see on TV or on people’s Facebook pages.

This phenomenon also interacts with another, that we determine our happiness relative to our own current state, meaning that we habituate to our current situation. Functionally what this means is that if we want to remain happy we constantly need more – more than we have now, and more that other people have. The habituation phenomenon was humorously depicted in the video game, Portal 2 (an excellent game, highly recommended if you like video games). The main antagonist is an AI that is programmed to run the player through various testing scenarios. Each time the player completes a test the AI gets the silicon version of a dose of dopamine, but the digital Nirvana is short-lived and it has to run another test to maintain the good feeling. But it rapidly habituates to this feedback, with shorter and less intense reward meaning it has to test faster and harder.

This is essentially how humans function as well. We are never content. We cannot remain happy by standing still. We need whatever other people have, and we need more than we currently have. This lines up with research into happiness. Making more money does make people happier, up to the level where basic needs and security are met (in the US this is now about 75k per year). Some researchers frame this not as money making people happy, but rather not having enough money to meet basic needs is stressful and makes people unhappy. Beyond this basic level, increasing income does not correlate with happiness. Whether you make 75 thousand a year or 75 million a year does not matter. Further, everyone thinks that they would be happy if they just made 20% more than they currently make Рregardless of how much that is. We habituate to our current situation and then think we need a little more to be happy.

Further, our happiness is relative to the income level of our neighbors. All other things being equal, if your neighbors are better off than you, you are less happy than if they are worse off. This is why relatively wealthy people still think they need more money – because they are likely surrounded by people who are also similarly wealthy.

As an aside, we can also look at lottery winners. Contrary to popular myth, people who win the lottery do not tend to blow it or become miserable. Most people invest and retain their wealth long term. Most lottery winners continue to work but take longer vacations. And while winning does not make them happier, it does increase their life satisfaction. So the reality is a bit more nuanced. This does make sense given that lottery winners have a sudden increase in wealth above the level they habituated to, and they would likely be relatively wealthy compared to their existing social structure. But if you want to maximize your happiness, a steady increase in wealth would be better than a sudden jump, or stagnation.

The deeper question is – why do humans function this way? There doesn’t necessarily need to be a direct reason. It could be an incidental phenomenon indirectly deriving from other factors. But there could also be a survival advantage to this psychological makeup as well. Researchers set out to answer this question – they did a computer simulation and found:

Using the framework of reinforcement learning, we explore the benefit of employing a reward function that, in addition to the reward provided by the underlying task, also depends on prior expectations and relative comparisons. We find that while agents equipped with this reward function are less happy, they learn faster and significantly outperform standard reward-based agents in a wide range of environments.

This is one study, and it’s a computer simulation, but the results are interesting. It suggests there is a functional advantage to habituating to our current environment, and also judging value relative to other things in the environment. Essentially these features make humans more adaptable, able to learn more quickly, and to function more optimally, especially in a variable and resource-limited environment. The effect was less pronounced when the environment was static or resources were highly abundant.

This study also does not rule out other factors as well. For example, perhaps we compare ourselves to others because survival is sometimes a competition, and there may be a survival benefit to maintaining a certain level of dominance over our neighbors. Imagine having barely enough food and water to survive, but your neighbors seem to have an abundance of both. Clearly, then, there is more food and water in the environment, and perhaps your neighbors are hoarding it. This situation has to change. If your neighbors were even worse off than you, however, you would likely be content with what you have. In other words, the relative state of your neighbors is useful survival information.

It may be that the tradeoff for these survival behaviors is unhappiness. Evolution does not need us to be happy, just to survive and reproduce. If anxiety and unhappiness is the price to pay for increased survival, that is what will happen. But like many things, humans are adapted to an environment of competition, scarcity, and danger, but some (not all) of us now live in a world of safety and abundance. Our instincts are not well adapted to the world we made for ourselves. As the authors of the study conclude, this “may shed light on psychopathologies such as depression, materialism, and overconsumption.” We may need to adapt to our own adaptability, to learn to be content with the overabundance we have created for ourselves and get off the endless cycle of FOMO and overconsumption. It’s just making us unhappy.

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