Don't Let FOBO Take Over Your Life

Sure, he's making a decision — but he might regret it later. Suphaksorn Thongwongboot/Shutterstock

I stared at different rolls of bubble wrap for well over 20 minutes a couple of months ago. The office supply store was running sales on the different sizes and types in a buy-2-get-1 situation, and I — about to move for the second time in two years — was trying to figure out the best possible option.

"How much did each of the small rolls equal compared to the large ones? And how much bubble wrap do I actually need?"

I left the store without any bubble wrap, so frustrated by my inability to make a simple decision. Instead, I purchased four large rolls of bubble wrap online for less than the sale price of three of the store's large rolls.

In my new home, there are two unopened rolls (and one half-used roll) sitting on a shelf.

Missing out on the better options

Illustration of a man choosing between elevators that are exactly the same
It's a tough call. Cartoon Resource/Shutterstock

While there were likely many reasons behind my inability to buy bubble wrap — anxiety about the move and the need for bubble wrap forcing me to confront it, chief among them — two of the non-emotional reasons were simply my desire to find the best deal and not having to come back and buy more.

The fact that I stood in the store for at least half an hour and left without buying anything indicates that I fell victim to a phenomenon called fear of better options, or FOBO.

This FOBO phenomenon is closely connected to FOMO, or fear of missing out, which is something you might be more familiar with. Both terms, coined in 2004 and credited to Patrick McGinnis, a Harvard Business School student, deal with the feeling that you need to maximize something, whether it be time or money, given that we often experience the sensation of having too many choices.

In McGinnis' piece on FOMO and FOBO, he explained that FOMO is when you schedule your life doing as many activities as possible so that you won't regret not going to anything that could be especially cool. FOBO is FOMO's opposite, where you leave your options as open as possible in the hopes of picking the best one. Think of it as always selecting "Maybe" on Facebook invites that you get for events happening on the same day. You'll decide, eventually, on which to go, but you want to weigh all the possibilities first.

Or you walk out of a Staples without buying bubble wrap because you want more time to determine which sale will work best for you

'Drowning in choice'

A woman tries to decide what kind of yogurt to buy
It's just yogurt. The decision can't be that hard — or can it?. Zoriana Zaitseva/Shutterstock

Despite McGinnis' handy acronyms, these aren't new concepts, nor are they something social media created, even if researchers see a strong link between FOMO and social media use.

Ultimately, what we can credit with creating and pushing the FOs is capitalism and economics. One of the primary assumptions in economics is that we're all (mostly) rational beings who will make choices that maximize our satisfaction. We'll engage in research and weigh options to determine exactly what to buy, or what to do.

This is obviously a faulty assumption to a certain degree since the ability to make a rational decision based on knowledge of all possible choices in pretty much impossible. The alternative to maximizing is to engage in satisfying, a mash-up up satisfy and suffice coined in 1956. This is basically deciding to take the "good enough" option instead of the "best" option.

Too many options can influence your choices and how you feel about them. In the 2004 book "The Paradox of Choice," psychologist Barry Schwartz used the example of consumers attempting to decide between 20 different jars of jam or six pairs of jeans. In trying to decide between all these options, the consumers experienced frustration in the decision-making process, and once they made a decision, they were often unhappy with the choice they made, thinking that another option would taste or fit better.

Turn the jeans scenario into trying to decide whether to go to the club with one friend or a movie with someone else, and you basically end up with the same confusing situation.

A man holds jeans up to his waist to determine how they might look on him
What about those jeans you saw online, though? They were on sale. Sergey Ryzhov/Shutterstock

Jennifer Cool, a professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, told MTV News that our culture has us "drowning in choice," and that we're supposed to think it's a good thing.

"At eateries, we have to choose everything," Cool explained. "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."

But this market choice now extends to social choice. Social media didn't create the FOs, but it certainly amplified our sensation of experiencing them. Think about it: Social media shows us all the invites, but it also shows us what happened at the event we decided not to attend — leaving us feeling like we missed out, even if we enjoyed the activity we decided to do. Factor in that social media platforms monetize our activities to show us ads, and it's clear we're just creating and sustaining a socio-economic model of disappointment and negative self-evaluation.

Happy decisions

Cyber invite to a party, with confetti on the table near a keyboard
This party is going to be great, so don't doubt your decision to go. nito/Shutterstock

But it's possible to break out of that cycle and be happy with your decisions.

Time points out that the best way to combat FOMO is to refocus your attention on the good things already happening. Take pleasure in the choices you've made, and you'll feel better. Additionally, gratitude, that key to healthy living, will help you appreciate those choices. Basically, stop comparing your decisions to the decisions others have made and focus on whether it actually made you happy.

As for FOBO, Tim Herrera, writing for The New York Times, recommends following the lead of the satisfiers and making a Mostly Fine Decision (or M.F.D.):

So let's say you're me, sitting at home and 20 minutes into mindlessly scrolling through Seamless. To break the cycle and find my M.F.D. so I can actually make an order, I need to think about what my criteria are for a decision I’d be fine with: not hungry anymore, didn't spend too much money, ate something I didn't hate.
With those criteria in mind, I now have a specific threshold I know I need to hit. Once I've found an option that ticks off all those boxes, I've landed on my M.F.D.

If only I had that in mind when trying to decide on bubble wrap.