How the psychology of FOMO shapes our choices

The “Fear of Missing Out” is one of the strongest triggers in behavior design

Jen Clinehens
Jul 2, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Unsplash

Have you ever experienced FOMO — the “Fear of Missing Out”?

It’s a form of social anxiety that makes people scared they’re being left out of exciting or interesting events. It’s usually triggered by posts on social media, where it looks like the whole world is having fun without you.

If you suffer from FOMO, you’re not alone. A recent study found that 70% of millennials experience the fear of missing out on a regular basis.

There’s a psychological principle behind why people experience FOMO.

It’s called Loss Aversion, and it can be a powerful design mechanism for guiding customer choice.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

First identified by Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman, Loss Aversion is a psychological principle that says people will go to great lengths to avoid losing.

In fact, the psychological pain of losing is twice as powerful as the pleasure of winning.

Because it’s so powerful, Loss Aversion features heavily in cognitive psychology and decision theory. It’s also one of the most effective tactics for getting customers to buy (the other being Social Proof).

A customer’s hatred of losing can take lots of forms, each with fascinating applications.

“Losses loom larger than gains.”

— Daniel Kahneman

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

For example, a study was conducted to see if framing cancer treatments using Loss Aversion could improve surgery opt-in rates.

The research team hypothesized that opt-ins rates were related to how the options were framed.

To test this hypothesis, doctors presented patients with two options. Each framed surgery as a potential gain or a potential loss — the results were staggering.

  1. Surgery framed as a gain: “The one-month survival rate of surgery is 90%”
  2. Surgery framed as a loss: “There is a 10% chance of death in the month post-surgery”

When framed as a gain, 84% of people chose surgery. But when framed as a loss, only 50% opted in.

This simple application of Loss Aversion increased surgery opt-ins by 54%.

The more emotions associated with a product, the more people value it.

This principle is known as the Endowment Effect. It’s a psychological principle that falls under the Loss Aversion umbrella.

In “Predictably Irrational”, Dan Ariely describes this effect through the lens of Duke University basketball.

Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash

If you’re unfamiliar with Duke basketball, all you need to know is the Duke-UNC game is the biggest of the year. And that it takes place in an area of the country where basketball is basically a religion.

To score tickets to this game, students have to camp out for weeks. They are then entered into a lottery for a chance to win the tickets.

Ariely reached out to students who won tickets and those who entered the lottery but didn’t win. Both had invested the same amount of pain, sacrifice, time and effort to enter the lottery. But some had won and others hadn’t.

Would this affect how each group valued the basketball tickets?

The results were interesting. Students who were not successful in the lottery said they’d pay an average of $170 for a ticket.

But the students who did get a ticket? When asked how much they’d sell their ticket for, they asked 170% more for their ticket — about $2,400 on average.

The question is — why were the owners asking so much for their tickets?

The answer? Emotion.

According to Ariely, once someone owns a product they begin fantasizing about their future experiences. Once they create these “pre-memories” of the game, ticket-holders don’t want to lose out.

So these students wouldn’t only be selling a ticket. They’d be losing out on potential memories, emotions, and good times.

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

“I have seen one mail order advertisement actually sell not twice as much, not three times as much but nineteen and a half times as much merchandise as another ad for the same product.

Both were run in the same publication. Both had photographic illustrations. Both had carefully written copy.

The difference was that one used the right appeal and the other used the wrong appeal.”

— John Caples, “Tested Advertising Methods”

Source: does a great job using Loss Aversion to nudge sales. When customers are browsing hotel deals, they see a message like the one above — “Only 6 rooms left on our site!”

This pushes customers who might be on the fence to buy before they miss out.

Source: NASA via MooSend

In this example from NASA, a launch countdown clock creates a sense of urgency and FOMO.

Source: Dropbox for Business

To produce the Endowment Effect (like Ariely in the basketball example above), a free product trial is very effective.

Once your product is in a customer’s home, an emotional bond is developed through use. The feeling of ownership is a powerful psychological tool for getting and keeping customers.

In this example from Dropbox for Business, a 30-day trial starts creating an emotional bond.

Photo by Reynolds on Unsplash

The danger of using traditional Loss Aversion signals is that they can come across as spammy. “Last chance!”, “Hurry!” (and in emails, these words can get your email sent directly to Spam)

People are smart and they don’t want to feel sold to.

It’s simple — have empathy for your customers. Here’s how:

  1. Understand exactly what your audience is afraid of losing.
  2. Understand why they’re afraid of losing it.
  3. Develop materials that address their worries, and give them a potential solution.

Only after you know your customers better than your competitors can you frame an offer using Loss Aversion in the right way.

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Jen Clinehens

Written by

Writing where decisions, design, and behavioral science meet. Author, CX That Sings

The Startup

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