Escape from the matrix

The fear of missing out haunts our social networks and our real lives alike. But there is a way to break free

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In the departure hall of Zaventem airport near Brussels, November 19, 2013. Photo by Francois Lenoir/Reuters

In the departure hall of Zaventem airport near Brussels, November 19, 2013. Photo by Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Jacob Burak is the founder of Alaxon, a digital magazine about culture, art and popular science, where he writes regularly. His latest book is How to Find a Black Cat in a Dark Room (2013). He lives in Tel Aviv.

Here’s a test you might enjoy: rate these scenarios on a number scale, ranging from 1 for mild discomfort to 7 for outrageous distress.

Scenario 1: you’re flicking through news websites, as you do every morning. Today, however, you’re behind schedule and have only 15 minutes to read articles, instead of your usual 30. You have to skip some of your favourite columns and sections. How would you rate your level of discomfort? (Most of us would probably choose a low level, say 2.)

Scenario 2: you’re visiting New York City and realise there’s no way you’ll be able to get to all the exhibits, see all the recommended plays, or take in even a fraction of the ‘musts’ your local friends have raved about. How do you feel now? Something like 5?

Scenario 3: you’re at dinner with friends, and you’ve all agreed to make it a strictly phone-free evening. But your smartphone won’t stop beeping Twitter and text alerts. Something is obviously up in your social network, but you can’t check. Even 7 wouldn’t match the stress you’re feeling now.

Welcome to FoMO (Fear of Missing Out), the latest cultural disorder that is insidiously undermining our peace of mind. FoMO, a spawn of technological advancement and proliferating social information, is the feeling that we’re missing out on something more exciting, more important, or more interesting going on somewhere else. It is the unease of feeling that others are having a more rewarding experience and we are not a part of it. According to a recent study, 56 per cent of those who use social networks suffer this modern plague.

Of course, that sense of missing out is nothing new. An entire body of literature describes the heart-wrenching conflict between romantic aspirations and social conservatism. Edith Wharton, Charlotte Brontë and Stendhal, to name but a few, described the angst of missing out long before we could look up high-school friends on Facebook.

But while 19th-century protagonists spent a lifetime grappling with a single missed opportunity, today’s incessant flow of information is a disturbing reminder of the world rushing by. As you read this, you might be missing a party that some friends are throwing or the meal that other friends are eating without you. Perhaps you’re willing to cut one phone call short – in mid-sentence – to take another call, without even knowing who might be on the other end. At night, when you’ve solemnly sworn yet again to put the phone aside or turn off the computer, you grab one last peek at the screen on your way to bed – lest you miss some titbit supplied by mere acquaintances or even strangers requesting your ‘friendship’ or announcing news.

We all know the studies showing that end-of-life regrets centre on what we didn’t do, rather than on what we did. If so, constantly watching others doing things that we are not is fertile ground for a future of looking back in sorrow. A lively conversation at the other end of the table can give us the FoMO itch, just as can the dizzying array of shows, parties, books, or the latest in consumer trends pumped at us by social media.

Our attractive online personas – so alluring from afar – make FoMO more virulent still. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology social psychologist Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), says that technology has become the major construct through which we define intimacy. We confuse our hundreds, or even thousands, of ‘friends’ on social networks with the handful of intimate friends we have in reality. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, Turkle claims that the price we are paying for technological prosperity is the gradual decline of important relationships – with our parents, children, or partners – and the birth of a new type of loneliness. ‘Insecure in our relationships, and anxious about intimacy,’ she writes, ‘we look to technology for ways to be in relationships, and protect ourselves from them at the same time.’ If you have ever looked on in wonder as someone taps out an endless text message instead of actually talking to the person they’re with, you will find comfort in Turkle’s assessment that our relationship with technology is still maturing. Being connected to everyone, all the time, is a new human experience; we’re just not equipped to cope with it yet.

Turkle says our dependence on technology can be mitigated if we manage to detach ourselves, even for short periods of time, from our gadgets. Will we one day buy devices from FA (FoMO Anonymous) to help us recover from our technology addiction? I envision devices that relay information at random, unanticipated intervals – with neither sender nor receiver cognisant of the delay in advance; that would force owners to miss out on some communiqués and discover, to their surprise, that they can still function without them.

Even with such interventions, the problem might be resolved only when we grasp that our brains and our humanity – not our technologies – enable this addiction, in the end. We cannot seek solutions without honestly asking ourselves why we are so afraid of missing out.

The University of Oxford social scientist Andrew Przybylski recently conducted the first empirical study on the exploding disorder, with the results published in Computers in Human Behavior in 2013. Among his conclusions, there and elsewhere, is that FoMO is a driving force behind social media use. FoMO levels are highest in young people, in particular young men. It is high in distracted drivers, who engage in other activities while behind the wheel. And perhaps most revealing, FoMO occurs mostly in people with unfulfilled psychological needs in realms such as love, respect, autonomy and security. All in all, we are afraid of missing out on love and on feeling that we belong; those of us heavily invested in work also fear missing an opportunity for professional advancement or a profitable deal.

The University of Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, author of How Many Friends Does a Person Need? (2010), says that the problem might be mitigated if only we understood ourselves more. Dunbar claims that we lack the emotional and intellectual capacity to distinguish between more than about 150 members of a group – the average size of a Neolithic farming village. But just tell that to the average US teen, who sends 3,000 text messages a month (according to a 2010 report by Nielsen, the marketing-survey giant) and who fears that she will be ostracised if she doesn’t respond immediately, sometimes dealing with a cast of thousands online.

Freedom from other people’s opinions and release from social comparison is a triumph reserved for very few. The self-discipline strong enough to withstand the power of FoMO is no less rare. In 2012, the University of Chicago social psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann studied the use of willpower to resist daily temptation: his participants found it far easier to abstain from food and sex through willpower alone than to stay away from online networks, where the failure rate was 42 per cent.

What, then, can we do about something so detrimental to our quality of life? Psychotherapy for the underlying emotional causes of FoMO is far too costly and invasive, and simply vowing to disconnect from our gadgets fails to work. Instead, the best way to cope with FoMO might be to recognise that, at our frenetic pace of life, we are sometimes bound to miss out. And that, when we do, we might actually improve the outcomes of the options we have chosen.

our soul is crying out for help, imploring us to limit our superficial connectivity and our frantic hopping from site to site

This simple approach was first introduced in 1956 by Herbert Simon, an American multidisciplinary researcher and Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics. He used the term ‘satisfice’ – a portmanteau of ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’ – to suggest that instead of trying to maximise our benefits, we seek a merely ‘good enough’ result. Simon’s strategy relies on the assumption that we simply do not have the cognitive capacity to optimise complex decision-making. We cannot process the mass of information entailed in weighing all available options and probable outcomes – both on the social networks and off. Thus, the best move is ‘satisficing’ – choosing the first available option that meets our predetermined criteria, which is good enough.

In 1996, Simon published an autobiography describing his life as a series of discrete decisions in which he chose the ‘good enough’ option over a possible best one. Simon claims that most people who favour optimisation are unaware of the heavy toll that gathering information takes on their overall benefit. In routine decisions, the price we pay is in well-being: anyone with a friend who will not agree to eat anywhere but the most fashionable restaurant or who insists on shopping until the perfect outfit is found can appreciate the relief of a ‘good enough’ strategy.

Studies of Simon’s method have shown that people who insist on optimising decisions are ultimately less satisfied with their choices than those who made do with ‘good enough’. Other studies clarify why: the achievements of the former are actually lower than those of the latter, especially when the decision involved weighing possible outcomes. In a series of experiments led by the Swarthmore College social psychologist Barry Schwartz, participants filled out a self-assessment questionnaire determining their tendency to optimise decisions (based on their agreement with statements such as ‘I never settle for second best’ or ‘I often find it difficult to shop for gift for a friend’). Another questionnaire measured subjects’ propensity to feel regret; participants were then classified according to their answers on both questionnaires. The researchers found a negative correlation between the tendency to optimise and happiness, self-esteem and satisfaction, and a positive correlation between the same tendency and depression, perfectionism and regret. Another study in the series found that people who optimise also engage in more social comparison, and are adversely affected when they come up short.

Wait a minute – isn’t FoMO of the social networks based exactly on this type of comparison? If so, could ‘satisficing’ bring relief? Analysing FoMO through Simon’s parameters reveals an uncanny similarity to the decision-making processes he studied, marked by cognitive overload and a heavy toll on well-being.

As the saying goes, ‘Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered’: greediness that looks to maximise doesn’t pay

Today’s wealth of information, especially online, is costing us another valuable resource: our attention, which is limited enough to begin with. The difficulty of spreading our already taxed attention over unprecedented amounts of information derives not just from our cognitive problem with prioritising, but also from our inability to consume and process it all. FoMO-related distress is our soul crying out for help, imploring us to limit our superficial connectivity and our frantic hopping from site to site before our quality of life and our ability to express intimacy and individualism erode.

Taking the ‘good-enough’ approach to this crushing problem is not merely a tactic for improving our decision-making. It is first and foremost a world-view, a way of life; some researchers even believe it is a hereditary personality trait.

Testimony to the method’s effectiveness abounds. In business, sacrificing maximisation in favour of a predefined ‘good enough’ is known to be the best strategy in the long run. As the saying goes, ‘Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered’: greediness that looks to maximise doesn’t pay. Business people also know to ‘leave something on the table’, especially in deals leading to long-term partnerships. Experienced capital market investors understand that aiming to ‘sell at the peak’ will ultimately be less profitable than selling once a satisfactory profit is gained. Corporate graveyards are full of companies that did not stop at a ‘good enough’, profitable product that they could easily market, surrendering instead to ambitious engineers with sophisticated specifications and unrealistic plans.

In his outstanding book Why the Allies Won (1995), the British historian Richard Overy analyses the outcomes of the Second World War, which were not, he claims, a given. One explanation he offers is the German army’s attempt to optimise use of its military munitions at the expense of tactical combat efficiency. At one point in the war, the Germans had no fewer than 425 different kinds of aircraft, 151 kinds of trucks, and 150 kinds of motorcycles. The price they paid for the technical superiority of German-made munitions was difficulty in mass-production, which was ultimately more important from a strategic point of view. In the decisive battles fought in Russia, one German force had to carry approximately one million spare parts for hundreds of types of armed carriers, trucks and motorcycles. The Russians, in contrast, used only two types of tanks, making for much simpler munitions maintenance during war. It was ‘good enough’ for them.

Perfectionism is the personality trait most associated with aspiring towards maximising the outcome of decisions. However, those of us who know perfectionists, know that for them life is one never-ending score sheet that throws them into a self-assessment tizzy of frustration, anxiety and sometimes even depression. Perfectionists tend to confuse error with failure, and their attempt to hide their errors, even the inevitable ones, prevents them from accepting the critical feedback so necessary for personal growth. They would probably give a great deal for the relief of being able to ‘satisfice’.

Even when it comes to emotional intimacy and love, ‘good enough’ works best. It was the British psychologist Donald Winnicott who gave us the concept of the ‘good-enough mother’ – a mother sufficiently attentive and adequately responsive to her baby’s basic needs. As the baby develops, the mother occasionally ‘fails’ to answer his needs, preparing him for a reality in which he will not always get exactly what he wants, whenever he wants it. The child learns to delay gratification, a key to any form of adult success. As we mature, we make do with ‘good enough’ partners almost by definition. Yes, out there is someone probably more suited to our needs – but we might not live long enough to find him or her.

Even if feeling that we are missing out is testament to our spirited drive for life, the way in which social networks now enhance our optimisation fallacy beyond all proportion is taking a serious toll on our quality of life. If you still doubt that ‘good enough’ is the best antidote to FoMO, the words of the American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson might strike the right chord: ‘For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.’

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