FOBO: The Psychology Behind the 'Fear of Better Options'
Wed, April 21, 2021

FOBO: The Psychology Behind the 'Fear of Better Options'

It is estimated that the average person makes about 35,000 decisions every day. Thus, it’s fair that we get confused when deciding on certain things / Photo by: Roman Samborskyi via Shutterstock

 

It is estimated that the average person makes about 35,000 decisions every day. Thus, it’s fair that we get confused when deciding on certain things, whether it has to do with what food we’ll buy or what time we’ll eat. Most of the time, people suffer from indecision because there are a lot of choices given to them. 

If you constantly have difficulty deciding for yourself, you might be suffering from FOBO or the ‘fear of a better option’. With so many choices today, it’s no wonder people fear that there could be something better. FOBO can explain why we labor over decisions that should be easy to make. 

According to The Guardian, FOBO can happen with minor decisions to even more significant ones. The phenomenon is closely connected to FOMO or the ‘fear of missing out’, coined by Patrick McGinnis, a Harvard Business School student, back in 2004. McGinnis also coined FOBO. Both terms deal with the feeling of trying to maximize something since we often experience the sensation of having too many choices.

"It keeps you from committing to any choice in case another, more optimal opportunity comes along. Then, at the very last minute, you pick whatever works best for you, without considering the effects your behavior has on those who are impacted by your indecision,” McGinnis explained.

People suffering from FOBO generally find themselves extremely overwhelmed by the possibilities of what the impacts of their decision could be. Thus, they usually hold back on deciding, and when they do make a decision, they tend to take it back.

Understanding FOBO

McGinnis came up with FOBO after noticing that he and his colleagues were always optimizing. They think of life as a world full of maybes. They are paralyzed at the prospect of committing to something because they are afraid that they might be choosing something that’s not the best option. According to The New York Times, an American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide coverage, FOBO is a byproduct of a hyper-busy, hyper-connected world in which everything seems possible. As a result, people are spoiled for choice. 

McGinnis explained that while FOBO is an affliction of affluence, it is driven by narcissism. He tied FOBO back to our 'biology of wanting the best’ compared to what those around us have. This isn’t a new concept but the idea has been amplified by technology and social media as they continuously give us more options than ever.

“Our ancestors a million years ago were programmed to wait for the best because it meant they were more likely to succeed,” he said.

The concept of FOBO – likely to hold back on commitment or commit then cancel – can be frustrating and exhausting to the people around those with FOBO who depend on someone for a firm commitment. FOBO has become a common social behavior due to the mass introduction of sophisticated technology and the internet. 

FOBO can also be explained by simply being overwhelmed by a lot of options. When we are young, we have very few decisions to make. However, the decisions we have to make grow, especially in today's fast-moving world. “When facing these decisions, you pass them through several lenses: your life experience, past disappointments, and yours and other people's expectations, among others,” McGinnis said. 

Dr. Elena Touroni, psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, stated that FOBO has great impacts on us because time is a big factor in all our lives. Thus, we are constantly worried about making the wrong choices and wasting that time. Anxiety plays an integral role in this phenomenon. According to the Daily Mail, a British daily middle-market newspaper published in London in a tabloid format, it makes people worry that they might make the wrong decision, and this worry affects their happiness. “But no decision is right or wrong - it really just depends on the circumstances,” she said. 

Jennifer Cool, a professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, states that FOBO is structurally related to capitalism. For years, our culture has had us "drowning in choice” that we're supposed to think it's a good thing.

Beating FOBO

McGinnis further explained that the fear in FOBO refers to our fear of letting go. “In order to choose something you must let go of another thing and it’s the fear of having to mourn the road untaken. So we would rather not decide at all and keep all of our options open,” he said. 

McGinnis shared two helpful tips to address FOBO. The first one is what he calls ‘Ask the Watch’ where people can list two options and then assign each item to a side of their watch. Whatever side the hand of the watch points to is the decision you should follow. For bigger decisions, he stated that writing down the choices us helpful. Then, you should include all the pros, cons, or other factors and read it out aloud. This is when you should try to weigh your choices.

When deciding on something in a world full of options, it’s normal to get confused or feel lost. It’s important to practice making decisions or ask someone reliable to help you. 

When deciding on something in a world full of options, it’s normal to get confused or feel lost. It’s important to practice making decisions or ask someone reliable to help you / Photo by: Just dance via Shutterstock