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Fear Of Better Options: Do We Actually Have FOBO And Not FOMO?

Too many choices are leading us to choose nothing. A USC anthropologist explains what's happening to our brains.

“Ugh! There’s nothing to do!”

When you were a kid, this was your constant complaint to your parents, as you sat stone-faced on the couch and flipped through the same 20 channels on your TV.

Now you have endless must-watch shows on Netflix, Hulu and HBO, not to mention drinks with your coworkers, that ski trip, your buddy’s White Elephant party, and your favorite band’s secret show, all incessantly broadcast to you via the magical little brick that is the smartphone you keep with you always.

So why are you still at home sitting stone-faced on the couch, refreshing the same mundane updates on your Facebook page? The answer is most likely, “Ugh! There’s everything to do!”

For the last several years, everyone from psychologists to ad agencies (to all of us, in our moments of introspection) have tried to identify the elusive condition that keeps us involuntarily fixated to our devices, checking for “likes” before we’re even out of bed, and even risking our safety to read messages while we drive.

The diagnosis? FOMO

...or "Fear Of Missing Out," which has become a wildly trendy fake illness...

FOMO is used as an excuse for everything from our tech addictions to shaming us into attending Facebook events -- but which came first, the FOMO or the social media? Is one making the other worse?

Big decisions have always been scary, but what's big and what's small?

We sat down with Dr. Jennifer Cool, an anthropologist at USC in Los Angeles, for some insights into what FOMO is doing to our species.

Her first response: “I don’t even know if we have [FOMO] now."

What?! Haven't a million articles linked technology with FOMO-based anxiety?

“It can’t possibly be that we dropped social media in and it caused it," Cool says. "The ‘fear of a better option’ [has] been around for a long time," which is why "people wait to commit to marriage."

The difference is that suddenly every little choice -- what to do tonight, or what to watch, or which place to go, and with whom? -- feels as monumental as wedlock.

Should you go on that date or watch the game? Hit that rager or make it to wine night? Yes! Both! All of them!

We may not be worried that we're missing out so much as we're incapable of choosing what to miss. Thanks to the wonders of social media, you can attend one event while being digitally “present” at another. You may find yourself, when faced with such a wealth of possibilities, so concerned with choosing the best option that you end up choosing nothing at all.

Our brains aren't wired for this brave new world of infinite decisions

“We’re drowning in choice,” Cool explains.

Our culture gives us "the idea that extra choice is good," but if that's true, then why do we all feel so overwhelmed -- and why does being overwhelmed feel so bad?

"At eateries, we have to choose everything," Cool says. "What kind of bread? What kind of mayo? What kind of cheese? Every little thing. That is a much deeper part of the culture. It’s definitely structurally related to capitalism. 'OK, the market is saturated on ketchup, now we need green ketchup.’ All of those options, that’s part of a marketing machine.”

Cool dismissed the notion that this onslaught of options is just the way that it’s always been.

“My dad is from the Depression era, and he doesn’t suffer from [our modern] idea that infinite choice is good," she says. “He’s like, ‘What kind of sandwich do I want? I just want to eat. Give me a sandwich.'"

That kind of satisfaction in simplicity is difficult, maybe even impossible, when we're constantly viewing our friends' artisinal meals on Instagram. We struggle to let go of the idea "that somebody has got it better...that you want to make things perfect,” Cool says.

This desire for perfection is deep-seated in our culture

...and may be creating the new gap between who we are and who we believe we can or should be.

“Americans think we can do everything,” Cool says. “We’re so used to talking as if they sky is the limit, [but] the sky isn’t the limit. We’ve got four hours here, and it takes two hours to get anywhere back and forth, so you’ve got to choose something.”

Whether it's lunch or a lifetime career path, twentysomethings seem to be plagued by choice more than ever.

“Extended adolescence is also related to this," Cool says. "One of my students did a documentary, and one of her interviewees had a great line: 'I went to college -- I was told I could do anything, but I didn’t do anything.'"

And that just makes it worse, compounding the frustration

...because doing nothing -- which used to give us time and space to read, or think, or create -- is now a source of guilt.

"We’ve got FOBO, FOMO, and now FODA, 'fear of doing anything,'" Cool says. "This is what we become paralyzed with. There are more options, but there’s only so much time. We didn’t extend the day, or our ability to go without sleep.”

Ironically, the same outlets that render us inactive by way of “compulsive connectivity” are the ones where we receive the damaging notion that something is wrong with us if we're not constantly fulfilled.

“This is a culture where you want to be positive," Cool says. "I see a lot of that on social media -- the pressure to be positive. The 100 Days of Happiness [Challenge], that is a sign. We shouldn’t have to try so hard to be cheery.”

FOMO (and FOBO and FODA) can't last forever

So, what are we supposed to do? We're all dependent on our devices and their infinite array of options, and -- short of a calamity -- we're not going back to a pre-smartphone world. Instead, we must learn to better navigate this one in which we live.

Technology isn't the real problem, which is as old as humankind: Jealousy. Rather than staring endlessly and enviously at the lives and adventures of others -- adventures that we think we would be on, if only we could commit fully to those lives -- we should look inward and discover happiness as we define it, regardless of how many likes or favorites or regrams it gets.

Because after you were done complaining, “Ugh! There’s nothing to do!" as a kid, you picked up a book and found an amazing way to spend your time. Remember what was on the cover?

"Choose Your Own Adventure."