a man anxiously staring at his phone consumed with the fear of missing out

Where To Be, Where Not To Be: New Research Digs Deep Into Our Fundamental Need To Belong

The FOMO phenomenon is a tale as old as our existence, suggests psychological researcher Adam Davis.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 05, 2023

The "Fear of Missing Out" phenomenon, commonly known as "FOMO," has been captivating the world of human behavior as a recent development. However, it has transcended generations and technologies, connecting us to our ancestral roots in ways we never imagined.

I recently had a conversation with Adam C. Davis, Professor at Canadore College, about his new study published in Current Research in Behavioral Sciences, where he helps dissect the origins of FOMO and its unexpected ties to competition, social dynamics, and mental well-being.

What sparked your interest in studying the FOMO phenomenon from an evolutionary perspective? How did you approach this study, and what were your main findings?

We were interested in the topic of FOMO because, for over a decade, it has seeped into and occupied the public consciousness. Despite its familiarity and a significant amount of clinically-oriented work on the topic, researchers had not approached the concept of FOMO and scientifically studied it using an evolutionary lens.

The internet and social media are surely recent inventions. But anxiety elicited by missing out on important social events is unlikely to be a new cultural phenomenon.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans have been conceptualized as an "ultra-social species" who express a fundamental need to belong. Social events like trivia nights, going to the movies, dancing, attending parties and going shopping help us to feel included, solidify friendships, receive social and emotional support, expand our social circles and meet relationship partners.

We can see how failing to partake in these social activities could hamper our ability to survive and reproduce, which underscores how FOMO has likely been a facet of our evolutionary heritage.

To approach this study, we recruited a sample of American adults and asked them to complete a self-report questionnaire to gather quantitative data. Our main findings were that a greater expression of FOMO was associated with:

  1. Striving for status
  2. Competing with same-sex others by promoting one's positive characteristics (e.g., attractiveness) and derogating rivals
  3. And a stronger desire to seek out short-term sexual opportunities

We also found that females, but not males, higher in FOMO were more likely to report that they were receiving less social support.

Can you provide a brief overview of what FOMO refers to and why it has gained attention in contemporary society?

FOMO refers to feeling distress and anxiety over missing out on important social activities and events.

It has gained attention among the public because it is such a relatable experience that has become more salient in this new digital era that characterizes modern society.

With the majority of adolescents and adults using various social media platforms, we are constantly being reminded of what our friends, family and acquaintances have been up to in their social lives, and the different social functions that we were unable to attend.

Are there any positive aspects or upsides associated with FOMO that you discovered in your research?

Using an evolutionary perspective, we proposed that FOMO may be adaptive: it can alert people to missing out on salient social activities. Missing out on these events could negatively impact our ability to connect with friends and family, exchange gossip and meet romantic partners.

In more of a personally relevant way, FOMO can encourage us to strive for status and to advance our occupational standing. It can also motivate us to seek out dating opportunities and relationship partners.

Therefore, although higher levels of FOMO within individuals can lead to problematic outcomes (e.g., negative mental health symptoms), the expression of FOMO can be important for achieving our goals in life.

Your research highlights the importance of competition for social and mating resources in FOMO. Can you explain how FOMO influences individuals inclination to compete for these resources, and why this competition is significant in the context of evolutionary psychology?

Social, economic and romantic opportunities are not infinitely available. Furthermore, people across history and around the world display evident preferences for the kinds of jobs and relationship partners that they want to pursue. This means that people need to compete (to some extent) for those valued social, economic and mating resources.

We posit that FOMO helps to inform us of what is going on in the social, occupational and romantic lives of others. This knowledge can be used to evaluate our current standing in these areas of our lives, as well as encourage us to compete for the resources that we desire. This competition for finite valued resources is likely not a new experience for people in contemporary society.

Despite some attempts to characterize human beings as "fiercely egalitarian," modern and historical examples of humans sharing all resources equally are rare and contentious. The bulk of the evidence indicates that we have been competing for evolutionarily relevant resources (e.g., status, mates, food, water, shelter, etc.) for millennia.

Could you elaborate on the link between FOMO and intrasexual competitiveness, and how this connection contributes to our understanding of individuals' striving for social status and avoiding feelings of inferiority?

Previous work indicated that those higher in FOMO are more competitive, but the evidence provided was largely circumstantial. This research suggested that people expressing FOMO to a greater extent feel more pressure to compete in their social worlds to avoid feelings of shame, embarrassment and inferiority.

Building on this scholarship, we noted how striving to avoid feeling inferior is core to intrasexual competitiveness: vying with same-sex rivals for evolutionarily important resources (e.g., status, jobs, material goods, mates, etc.).

Therefore, we reasoned that these two constructs should be associated with each other, and we provided evidence to support this link.

Could you discuss what your research found about the interaction between FOMO and the pursuit of short-term casual sexual relationships? What implications does this have for individuals?

The idea of "sexual FOMO" had been talked about in blog posts and news articles, but researchers had yet to test the idea that those higher in FOMO feel like they are missing out on sexual opportunities.

If so, we reasoned that adults with higher levels of FOMO should generally express a preference for short-term casual sexual relationships with a greater variety of sexual partners (called unrestricted sociosexuality).

We found evidence to support this idea: higher levels of FOMO were correlated with having a larger number of previous sexual partners and more frequently fantasizing about short-term sex. Thus, a stronger expression of FOMO might compel adults to seek out and to take advantage of casual sexual opportunities when they present themselves.

Can you shed light on the connection between FOMO and social support, particularly in terms of the gender and sex differences observed? How does FOMO influence individuals' perception of social connectedness and the availability of emotional support?

Some previous work had shown that higher levels of FOMO corresponded to feeling less socially connected and receiving less social support. Individuals may feel a sense of disconnection and isolation when those in their social lives attend events that they are missing out on.

This could engender anxiety and feeling as though one's social needs are not being met. But, the social lives and social needs of human beings are sex-differentiated: across the lifespan females tend to form more tightly knit emotional bonds with a smaller number of people in their social circles.

Therefore, we speculated that FOMO might be a more potent trigger for females to alert them that their needs for social and emotional support are not being met. We found evidence to support this idea in our study.

Based on your findings, what advice or strategies would you recommend to individuals who experience FOMO and seek to strengthen their social support networks? How can individuals strike a balance between the drive for social inclusion and mitigate the potential negative effects of excessive social competition, comparison and striving for social status?

The limited research on the topic indicates that people higher in FOMO might try to satisfy their need for social support by using more antagonistic strategies: fiercely competing with rivals and using aggression to acquire valued social resources.

Research shows how aggression can be an effective means to elevate one's social rank, but that it tends to decrease our likability (called sociometric popularity) and increases the likelihood of peer rejection.

Therefore, it would be advantageous for people with greater levels of FOMO to find more socially harmonious ways to connect with friends, family and co-workers to both increase their status and engender likability.

How does your research contribute to our understanding of the evolutionary origins of FOMO and its implications for mental health in lieu of the existing body of knowledge? In what ways does considering an evolutionary perspective enhance our comprehension of individual differences in the experience of FOMO?

There is a tendency for people to assume that features of our psychology (e.g., values, attitudes, personality, etc.) are created by culture (i.e., a nurture bias). What most of us fail to appreciate is that everything cultural is produced, transmitted, and understood by a biological organ that has evolved over millions of years: the human brain.

Therefore, as commonly stated but often misunderstood, there is always an interaction between the forces of nature and nurture. FOMO is a great example of this interaction.

Social inclusion is a fundamental human motive that is being triggered in an unhealthy way by technological advancements in contemporary society (e.g., social media). Therefore, although we argue that FOMO might be adaptive, this does not necessarily mean that it is unequivocally positive. The concept of adaptation is often confused in this way.

We can think of FOMO as an individual difference that exists along a continuum: some people express lower levels, whereas others express higher levels. Despite its potential adaptive utility, a stronger expression of FOMO has been linked to many undesirable outcomes in previous research (e.g., negative mental health symptoms).

From an evolutionary perspective, we can see how social media has created an evolutionary mismatch, where our adaptations for social belonging and inclusion are being triggered in an unhealthy way. Individuals expressing greater levels of FOMO are, therefore, more likely to experience these deleterious outcomes.

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