Is FOMO Real?

We go behind the acronym to find out.
Published November 25, 2018 | Updated October 6, 2022

No, it’s not just a social media buzzword. FOMO – fear of missing out – is actually a thing.

“FOMO is so very real. It has affected me my whole life,” says Jill Brown, owner of Jill Brown Fitness + Coaching

“It starts when we’re kids, or at least it did for me,” she explains. “I'd come home after school to start my homework and I'd see my friends one by one coming out to play. I'd get anxious and felt I was missing out on the fun. If I came out too late, I worried I wouldn't be able to get in the game. ‘You snooze you lose’ kind of thing. Does this feel familiar?” 

That feeling progressed from childhood into her adult life, Brown explains.

“It made me rush through things I should have taken more time with – like spending time with family. It made me go to parties where I'd drink too much, eat too much and stay out too late. This led to not taking very good care of myself. And sometimes it would make me skip doing the more important things.”

Melina Palmer, founder of The Brainy Business, says FOMO is deeply rooted in the psychology of humans and how we have evolved over time.

Palmer notes that many people do not realize that much of our decision making is done at a subconscious level.

To offer more insight into where FOMO comes from, Palmer explains four psychological concepts that come into play:

  • Scarcity: “When supplies are limited, or perceived as limited, our brains value them more. That can make people take action when there is even a hint of not having an opportunity later.”
  • Loss Aversion: “People do not like to lose things … anticipating loss can be a big motivator and is double that of perceived gains. The fear of losing out and avoiding that anticipated loss is an automatic process in the brain. It tends to dwell on things it is worried about losing.” 
  • Time Discounting: “This is the whole ‘I'll start my diet Monday’ and then ‘Monday’ never seems to come scenario. The brain does not value time appropriately and thinks about the future self as a completely different person. So, when you commit to doing something in the future – eating better, exercising, saving money – it is actually committing what it thinks is a completely different person. If the person of today is not the same as the brain anticipates tomorrow, it is easy to make ‘bad’ decisions that benefit you today even if they are negative in the long term, because the brain doesn't view consequences in a logical way.”
  • Herding: “People like to be part of the group, and humans herd just like sheep, cows, or guppies.”

Brown sees FOMO in the nutrition and fitness world, too.

“Once we start hearing about all the celebrities doing a new diet, like keto for example, people jump on the bandwagon. If you don't do it, you may feel you are missing out on what might be the magic bullet for fast weight loss,” she explains.

“The same happens with workouts.  If you don't go to the trendiest indoor cycling studio, take barre classes, join the craziest new boot camp workout, or do the right kind of yoga, you may feel like your friends or colleagues are in a club that you're not a part of.”

Brown adds that certain diet and exercise programs can create a "cult" vibe or mentality.

“They can be exclusionary instead of inclusionary. So you are not imagining your FOMO here. It’s real!”


Why is FOMO such a powerful motivator?


“FOMO is such a powerful motivator because it is ingrained in our DNA and how we have evolved as a species,” Palmer says. “This is also why it is so hard to change – we are trying to use our conscious brains to change a process that is done subconsciously so much more than we can even imagine.”

That said, if we’re aware of what we fear we’re missing out on, we can tap into it and use it to our advantage.

“[FOMO] can help you hone in on what’s most important in your life [or] things you’re striving to have in your life,” says marriage and family therapist Heidi McBain.


How can FOMO affect our mental health?

Although we can use FOMO to be a powerful – and positive – motivator, McBain explains it can also “lead us to always be living for the future and not appreciating all the good things in our lives this very moment.”


This fear of missing out, “can cause people to feel like there is something wrong with them if the people around them are doing things that they’d like to be doing, but they aren’t able to because they aren’t invited, don’t have the money, [or] have other commitments in their life already,” McBain says.