FOMO is Real

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“Social media has mastered intermittent reinforcements as well, or even better, than a casino's slot machine.“

– Ana Melikian

FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. We’ve all felt it. It’s a staple of the teen years, but it does not disappear in adulthood. Gina Bianchini’s book Purpose is not directly about FOMO, but it inspired me to dive deeper into how FOMO ties into purpose and conditioning.

We discuss:

  • An example of classical conditioning
  • Why operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning
  • Understanding the impact of FOMO on our actions and purpose

An example of classical conditioning

An example of classical conditioning

Have you ever decided to stay home to rest and relax, and then look at your phone and realize that some of your friends have gone out and are having a ton of fun, so much so that you second guess your decision? Or, have you ever pressed the “Buy” button after seeing the “Only XYZ Amount Left” tagline? Or maybe you put plans on hold in case you don’t have all the information about different options?

These are common examples of FOMO I’m sure we’re all familiar with, and they can create a “run in place” pace that isn’t supporting our purpose, and maybe even pushing away from it.

If we look at classic conditioning, the best example is Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s research on training dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. He did this by ringing a bell each time the dog saw food and naturally salivated, so that eventually the bell is associated with salivating and becomes a conditioning response.

We all can be quickly conditioning, even if we are not aware. Say you become sick after eating some sushi due to some spoiled fish. Now, every time you even see sushi, you feel nauseated. That is the same principle as Pavlov’s dog.

Let’s look at a different type of conditioning closer to what FOMO does to our brains.

Why operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning

Why operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning

Consider a pigeon trained to peck buttons in exchange for a reward. What if instead of getting the treat every time, it only receives it sometimes? The pigeon will continue to complete its task, repeating the same behavior, hoping for the reward “This time, this time, maybe this time.”

This idea is the essence of Professor Benjamin Skinner's conditioning theory, where he refers to FOMO as intermittent reinforcement or operant conditioning.

The essence of operant conditioning is earning from the consequences of our actions; rewards and punishments, not only association (such as classical conditioning). The unpredictability keeps us coming back—it’s what keeps people playing slot machines and making gambles.

If we do something and it leads to a good outcome, we are likely to do it again. If it ends badly, we will probably avoid doing it in the future.

Understanding the impact of FOMO on our actions and purpose

FOMO Fear Of Missing Out

FOMO isn't only about missing a party or social event. It's that urge to scroll social media, fearing we’ll miss that one post or update, or constantly checking our email for that specific urgent message.

In Gina’s book, she writes: “There's always something new to read, a podcast to listen to, or a feed to catch up on. Without staying vigilant, you may miss something important. Professor Benjamin Skinner termed this “intermittent reinforcement,” and modern social media has mastered it.”

Social media can be a form of gambling—vying for likes, attention, validation, and staying up to date with everyone, no matter if their activity has anything to do with our own or not. We gamble with our time and our energy.

Gina goes on to say: “Whether you call it intermittent reinforcement or prefer FOMO, it keeps both you and me consuming new content and wondering if we've got everything we need to act on our purpose. We think we are taking action, when in reality, we are running in place.”

FOMO often can keep us engaged—even addicted—and hold us back all under the guise of constant preparation and fear.

Are we truly taking action towards our purpose? Or are we running in place like a hamster on a wheel?

If you’re reading this thinking, “Oh, no, I’ve doomed myself by indulging FOMO! I have to stop all social media use right now and overcome this with sheer willpower, or else I’m a failure.” Pause, breathe, and remember that we learn best through experimentation. Willpower is not the only way to beat FOMO.

Consider exploring The PIE Method [link relevant blog post] and unlock a new relationship with purpose and intention. Understanding the forces of intermittent reinforcement allows you to have a better picture of what is happening so you can experiment and do something different.

If you are trying to overcome FOMO in your life: First, Press Pause. Second, Increase your self-awareness of what is happening. And third, embrace experimentation.

What is an area you’ve struggled in regarding FOMO?

Be sure to check out the full episode for further insight into FOMO!