Business and The Fear Of Missing Out

May 3, 2016 Mark Emmons


Let’s conduct a quick thought experiment. Envision two scenarios where you’re late for a flight. In the first case, you miss the plane by two hours. In the second, it’s only by two minutes.

Which one would make you more upset?

“The two minutes, of course,” said Dan Ariely, the author of “Predictably Irrational” and a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. “Why? Because you could imagine another reality where you did something differently and made the plane. So how we think about regret is very important. And the fear of missing out is basically a function of regret.”

LeanData has written extensively about the challenge B2B sales and marketing teams face when it comes to creating consensus among large buying committees and persuading them to purchase a product or solution. It can be like herding cats. And one technique that sales and marketing people traditionally have used to motivate prospects into action is by planting seeds of doubt. That means pushing the idea that if they don’t buy now, they’ll be sorry later.

This plays on what Ariely calls “anticipated regret.” And it’s the basis of FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out.

“Happiness in our life isn’t about where we are,” he explained. “It’s about creating an alternative reality in our mind and that contrast is what really drives our happiness. It’s a comparison between now and where we could have been. It’s a relative way of thinking.”

Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely

Ariely has done groundbreaking research into how humans can be, well, predictably irrational in their actions when it comes to money, relationships and just about everything else. He has a knack for creating ingeniously simple experiments that turn what we think we know about our world completely upside down. Those insights, delivered with a healthy dose of humor, have become fodder for some of the most-viewed TED Talks on the Internet.

His work is the result of a traumatic event that occurred when he was 18 years old. Ariely was burned over 70 percent of his body in an explosion. During his excruciating recovery, he was unable to persuade the nurses that they were causing him unnecessary pain by quickly ripping off his bandages each day. That experience motivated him to later show, through scientific research, that it was indeed less painful to cautiously remove bandages from patients’ burns.

When he presented his findings to those same nurses, though, Ariely was surprised to learn that they still were not persuaded. And that launched his career as a behavioral scientist. He set out to show what really influences our daily decisions — and why we typically do not learn from our experiences.

“When you ask people what they think are the great mysteries of the universe, the usual answer is something about the stars or microbiology,” Ariely said. “But to realize the true extent that we don’t know ourselves and our behavior, that’s really quite profound. You can just look at yourself and say, ‘Hey, this is something that I’ve been doing for a very long time and I haven’t realized that I’ve never thought about why I’m doing it.’”

And FOMO is one such topic that intrigues him. Regret, he said, is a poorly understood driving force in so much of how people act in life.

He cites one study that looked at how Olympic medalists behaved on the victory platform. It turned out that the third-place finishers smiled more than the athletes who took second. Ariely said that’s because silver medalists could imagine how if they had trained just a little bit harder, they might have won the gold. Meanwhile, bronze medalists were happier because they could compare themselves to all of the athletes who won no medal at all.

Predictably IrrationalAnother example is when appliance salespeople try to sell us an extended warranty. Ariely said that makes us think about the regret we will feel if that washing machine breaks down right after the manufacturer’s warranty expires. So we might protect ourselves from that fear by spending the money on extra coverage.

And now it’s possible to always know that we’re “missing out” on something thanks to the explosion of social media networks. We can all see — in real time — that we’re not at a great party, dinner, concert and so on. It helps explain why we spend so much of our lives staring at our cellphones. We keep checking to make sure we don’t miss something fun.

“So the important point is that we are inherently comparative creatures,” Ariely said. “We’re always comparing ourselves to different situations. It’s just human nature. FOMO is the same thing. There’s an alternative world out there that we could learn about, and it might fill us with real regret.”

That brings us back to the B2B sales process. It makes sense, he said, that smart revenue teams would want to inject that element of FOMO into discussions to try to close a deal.

“Like many things in the world, something that comes up with sales is the question of, ‘Is there urgency?’” he said. “It’s about forcing people to make a decision. When you think about procrastinators, if you can somehow paint the situation where you say, ‘Here’s the reason why you have to act now,’ that can be very effective.”

But the dynamics also can change when you’re dealing with a group of people rather than just a single individual, Ariely added. And that’s a common issue in B2B sales where the size of buying committees continues to grow. On one hand when people get into a group, it’s not unusual for everyone to start thinking the same way.

That would be a case of “groupthink,” he said.

“But sometimes it’s harder to get groups of people to decide on something,” Ariely added. “If you have one person who is resisting, it can be very, very hard to reach a decision. Remember the movie ‘Twelve Angry Men?’”

The well-known 1957 film featured Henry Fonda as the lone holdout on a murder trial jury who gradually persuades the other 11 jurors to see his point of view that the defendant is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“What’s very true about that movie is that if one person rejects the majority, it becomes easier for the next person and the person after to also reject the group,” Ariely said. “When you think about it, group dynamics can be very fragile. One person can really change the thinking of a group very easily.”

It might be a savvy tactic to raise the issue of FOMO in a business deal. But the deeper question for Ariely is the toll it can take on people when they spend too much time pondering any regret in their lives.

“Maybe we should spend more time eliminating FOMO,” he said. “Do I want to revisit past girlfriends? Look at investments that I didn’t make? Look at things that I can’t change? The big question is about how much do we want to expose ourselves to FOMO. If we have the realization that it could lead to some degree of pain, do we really want to spend time thinking about it?”

The earlier blog posts in this series are Driving the Right Conversation  and The Tactics Behind Driving the Right Conversation. 

Main image courtesy of Leo Hildago

About the Author

Mark Emmons

Mark Emmons is the staff writer at LeanData. He previously was a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register and Detroit Free Press. He can be reached at

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