Are You Suffering From the Heartbreak of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)?

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Systems thinkers are trained to look and assess for such things as unintended consequences, side effects, and even “blowback.” I consider myself to be a systems thinker, and I consider our Foundation to be a systems focused foundation. In my first career I was a structural geologist. Geology, along with its close association to evolution theory, is a systems focused discipline. In my second career—psychotherapist—I gravitated toward the work of John Bowlby, arguably the father of attachment theory. Bowlby’s theory of attachment is an application of naturalistic system theory in the areas of psychology, psychiatry, and human development (to name but a few). Interestingly, Bowlby started out as a naturalist, which was a precursor to the discipline of geology. Darwin was clearly a naturalist who went on to influence the world of psychology. There definitely is a geology – psychology connection centered on systems thinking and a systems worldview.

I tend to read the work of systems thinkers and theorists, especially those who focus in on systems concepts such as unintended consequences, side effects, and blowback. Here are a few examples.

1) Economist Chalmers Johnson’s 2000 book Blowback—The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. Johnson talks about the “blowback” or unintended consequences of certain US foreign economic and military policies. In what can only be called a scary prognostication, Johnson mentioned the possibility of terrorists using fuel-laidened jet planes as a low tech way of destroying strategic US targets months before 9/11.

2) Social critic Finn Bowring’s 2003 book Science, Seeds and Cyborgs—Biotechnology and the Appropriation of Life. Bowring talks about the unintended consequences of such scary but real possibilities as a genetically modified food chain and designer babies.

3) Social critics Robert Putnam and Mary Eberstadt and their respective books Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) and Home-alone America—The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes (2004). Both authors talk about the blowback or side effects of empty homes (Eberstadt) and empty communities (Putnam). Here are the side effects that Eberstadt points to as a result of kids increasingly being left alone and to their own devices (pun intended as revealed below): overeating and obesity; inappropriate sexual activity (which, in some cases, has led to major STD outbreaks); violence (such as the Columbine massacre); a desire for violent music containing misogynistic lyrics; and alcohol and drug abuse. I’d be remiss if I did not point out that one of the possible side effects of GM or genetically modified foods is an obese populace.

4) Cognitive psychologist Ernest Keen’s 2000 book Chemicals for the Mind—Psychopharmacology and Human Consciousness, and anesthesiologist Ronald Dworkin’s 2006 book Artificial Happiness—The Dark Side of the New Happiness Class. Both researchers talk about the side effects of a society increasingly turning to all manner of prescription drugs—antidepressants, behavioral drugs, anti anxiety drugs, pain killers, etc.—for what ails them. Keen calls this legal drug epidemic “the second coming of (chemical) lobotomy” (my paraphrase). Keen points out that we were reluctant to embrace surgical lobotomy, but we readily embrace and invite chemical lobotomy.

I could provide you with other examples but I think you get the point. Systems theory was big during and just after WWII. This is the period in which Bowlby did most of his formative work in the areas of attachment behavior and attachment systems. Today, systems theory is rarely talked about. But systems theory is all around us in the form of unintended consequences, side effects, and even blowback (as the above authors and their respective works point out). Take drug commercials on TV. When I watch a commercial for a drug like Lyrica (formulated to treat the nerve pain associated with fibromyalgia), I’m blown away by the number of side effects. Drug companies develop drugs in such a way that they have a main effect—reduce pain, reduce infection, etc. But the human body is a very complex system, and, as a result, there are often side effects associated with the main effect. Drug companies (as well as the FDA) constantly ask the systems question, “Are the side effect costs—decreased interest in sex, itching, suppressed immune system, etc.—worth the value of the main effect?”

I take a drug for my migraine headaches called Imitrex. Imitrex has an interesting potential side effect: death. Turns out that in clinical trials Imitrex revealed its ability to uncover certain preexisting heart conditions. And the Imitrex warning label doesn’t use the word “death;” it will euphemistically say something like, “Has the potential to disrupt the functioning of certain critical life sustaining systems.” Translation: death. But am I willing to take that side effect risk? You betcha! I’ve been using Imitrex for many years now, but I still wonder, “Will this be the dose that finally does me in?”

Viagra has a very interesting systems story to it. (I’m pulling this from a psychopharmacology workshop that I attended by a presenter who was a licensed pharmacist and held a Ph.D. in psychology.) Interestingly, the brand name drug Viagra is a side effect. Viagra (Sildenafil Citrate) was originally developed to treat pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). Well, one of the side effects was increased blood flow to the penis. A side effect in one context all of a sudden becomes a main effect in another. I’m guessing but I’m sure more money has been made selling Sildenafil Citrate as a treatment for ED or erectile dysfunction than has been made selling it as a treatment for PAH. But the Viagra systems story goes a bit further. You won’t hear this in the media (one would have to attend a psychopharmacology workshop) but there is a high failure rate associated with using Viagra to treat ED. Turns out that Viagra does improve mechanical functioning, but does little for the psychological issues surrounding ED. Once the Viagra “honeymoon” is over, the ED psychological issues come flooding back in and actually make the original problem worse. As our presenter told us, when you take a drug to improve performance, an expectation is created. The brain then kicks in those brain centers associated with monitoring performance. These brain centers in turn activate the “fight or flight” systems. Monitoring performance and remaining in a fight or flight state takes one away from the calming affects that the parasympathetic nervous system provides. So, the simple act of taking a performance enhancing drug takes one away from those systems that enhance lovemaking. The Viagra systems story points out that it is not enough to just address technical or mechanical issues; adaptive or systems issues also need to be addressed. (This is why persons on antidepressants should also seek the help of a mental health professional.) The Viagra systems story points out that if you only address the technical side of a problem, you could unintentionally make adaptive issues worse.

The above message is the same one that Ronald Heifetz, John Kania, and Mark Kramer deliver in their 2004 article entitled Leading Boldly—Foundations Can Move Past Traditional Approaches to Create Social Change Through Imaginative—and Even Controversial—Leadership. This Leading Boldly article appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. The authors point out that all social problems (like the ED example above) have both a technical component and an adaptive or systems component. The authors make it clear that both problems must be addressed otherwise the overall system could be made worse. As a systems thinker (running a systems focused Foundation) I found the authors’ message and warning to be most compelling. Sadly, as the authors point out, most philanthropists only look at and address technical problems. Why? Because technical problems are easy to define using cause and effect thinking, and, as a result, it is relatively easy to come up with interventions. Technical problems are usually defined once surrounding systems have been either eliminated or greatly reduced. Once again, when we attempt to reduce an overall system to simple cause and effect chains (the hallmark of empirical science mind you), chances are very good that blowback or unintended consequences will result. The scientists who developed the atomic bomb (as a part of the Manhattan Project) considered the possibility that by detonating such a device above ground, the earth’s atmosphere would be ignited. Yeow! That’s one heck of an unintended consequence. Finn Bowring talks about how scientists working in the area of genetically modified foods considered the possibility that some modifications carry with them the potential to destroy the entire food chain. Yet another catostrophic side effect.

So, what does this have to do with FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out? Well, turns out that systems focused scientists are starting to look and assess for blowback in the areas of Internet use and social media. According to a recent article, Internet and social media use can lead to a psychological condition now being called FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out. The Internet and social media have created an environment of constant updates, for instance, email updates, Tweets, text message updates, Facebook status updates, Amazon recommendations, etc. And apparently FOMO develops once one is addicted to a steady stream of updates. FOMO results when a person, even for a short period of time (say, a single evening at home) attempts to remove him or herself from that constant stream of updates and is unsuccessful. According to the above article on FOMO, here are some signs that you might be developing a Fear of Missing Out:

1) You’re at home and you can’t stop checking your phone for text messages, tweets, and Facebook status updates.

2) Your’re at a party and you can’t stop texting friends who are not at the party and browsing through social media sites.

3) You’re at the store and you’re having a hard time deciding what to buy, or even if you should buy, as something way cooler could always come along later.

As the article points out, once addicted to a constant stream of updates, a person can never actually be where they are in the physical world. They start “Jonesing” for a hit of that sweet digital world. They’re in a hyper state of wishing to monitor (and be monitored I would say). OK systems thinkers, what do you see going on? Yes, hyper monitoring, like in the Viagra example above. And all of this should sound familiar to you because according to study after study (see Gary Brooks’ book The Centerfold Syndrome) men addicted to pornography have a very difficult time being with the person they are with because they are constantly monitoring and making comparisons to the pornographic world that exists in their minds. For more on how pornographic processes and principles were used to fashion Facebook, see the article entitled Sexism at Facebook Is What Made It Facebook. Echoing Keen above, whereas we tend to reject overt forms of pornography, almost a billion of us worldwide embrace Facebook.

Lets quickly look at a couple of other Internet or social media examples of blowback.

1) In his book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr (who I have blogged about previously) argues that one side effect of Internet use is a reduction in the executive functions (EF) of the brain. EF is associated with such things as planning, perspective taking, appropriately directing attention, reflection, delaying gratification, cognitive modeling, mental time travel, etc. I have previously blogged about EF and will not go into detail here. Suffice it to say that we need EF to be successful in life. Sadly, there is a close association between decreased EF functioning and autism spectrum disorders. Maybe a side effect of Internet or social media use is a movement toward an increasingly autistic spectrum society. And, hey, there are those who argue that this side effect may actually be a great main effect as we increasingly move away from a back worker society and toward a brain worker society (see Richard Florida’s book Rise of the Creative Class).

2) In her book Alone Together, MIT researcher Sherry Turkle argues that the Internet and social media use increasingly answer the question asked by insecure attachment: “How do I connect without taking on the inevitable risk associated with face-to-face intimacy?” Agreeing with Mary Eberstadt and Robert Putnam, Turkle points out that millennial kids are being left alone and left to such devices as smartphones, computers, video games, and tablets. This attaching in digital space is an unintended consequence of not being able to find appropriate attachment in physical space with real embodied people. But digital attachment (for lack of a better term) has all the hallmarks of insecure attachment with its focus on distance, ambivalence, and even enmeshment. So, I would suggest that it is no coincidence that an increasingly insecure society (as described by Turkle) is meeting up with an increasingly autistic spectrum society (as described by Carr).

So, how do we protect ourselves from FOMO? As the FOMO article points out, 89 minutes on Tumblr (a microblogging platform) equals one concert, or one theater performance, or even one sporting event. The point being that we should try to spend equal amounts of time in both physical and digital worlds. As William Powers writes about in Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, there has been technological advances since Greek and Roman times: the clay tablet, the printing press, the telegraph, etc. It’s not the technology itself that creates problems; it’s our relationship to that technology that can bring about a boon or a bust. But forming an appropriate and productive relationship with technology takes reflection, planning, delaying gratification, perspective taking, etc. Yup, those pesky EF functions. But what if the Internet and social media has impeded one’s ability to develop EF? Man, that’s a tough one. I’m not sure I have an answer. Some side effects are simply too pernicious. I’ll end by pointing out that prior to the advent of the Internet and social media, kids whose minds were still developing sought out mentors, mentors who could model appropriate EF functioning. In times past, mentors (and mothers are included here) were in essence EF surrogates. As one presenter on EF told us during a workshop, the best way to develop EF is to seek out and “attach” to a well-functioning surrogate EF mind. Sadly, millennials are having a tough time finding well-functioning surrogate EF minds to attach to. In addition, millennials comprise the first generation raised knowing nothing but the digital age. So it is no wonder that they are attaching to Internet and social media minds. The blowback we should expect is a reduction in EF functions like perspective taking and empathy. I would  suggest that the article entitled Bullying of Teachers More Damaging in Online Era points to this blowback.

Side note: As our Foundation has moved away from a focus on Bowlbian attachment theory, we have considered the possibility of focusing in on developing EF functioning in kids and adults. Nothing definite yet but we’ll let you know.