Don’t let fear of missing out get in the way of Raya spirit

It’s that time of the year again.

For a lot of us who can afford it, celebrating Hari Raya Aidilfitri means new clothes (for different Raya days AND nights), duit raya (a truly Malaysia invention, this one), sumptuous spreads (at home, in the office, open houses, and padang (fields) now), bright decorations (plastic lampu lip-laps (lights), plastic pelitas, plastic ketupat, plastic everything it seems), and the list goes on and on.

And with the advent of social media, as perplexing as it may sound, no matter how much we try, there seems to be an endless list of things that we don’t yet have in preparing for Raya!

Yes, that’s what happens when you encounter a psychological phenomenon referred to as the “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO).

Now, please be clear that FOMO is not a new construct that landed on our laps with the arrival of social media. The term was first studied in 1996 by marketing strategist Dr Dan Herman, but it gained more prominence in 2004 when Patrick McGinnis, a Harvard MBA student, popularised the term in an article titled “Social Theory at HBS: McGinnis’s Two FOs” in The Harbus, the Harvard Business School student newspaper. Initially, McGinnis referred to the emotion as “Fear of a Better Option” (FOBO) before realising the true essence of the feeling.

Since then, FOMO has become a widely recognised phenomenon, with its impact on mental health and social behaviour being extensively studied and discussed.

But what I am more interested in is that FOMO has significant effects on consumer behaviour. A recent 2023 study published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services stated that FOMO is a key driver of social media use and can lead to negative psychological consequences such as anxiety, depression, and stress. Marketers leverage FOMO by creating a sense of urgency, scarcity, and social validation in their campaigns to drive consumer actions like impulse purchases and increased engagement. It taps into consumers’ intrinsic desires for social interaction, a sense of belonging and recognition, influencing their (needless) purchasing decisions and behaviours.

Additionally, FOMO can impact mental health by increasing anxiety, emotional tension, and distress, leading to a cycle of needing constant validation, and presenting a distorted self-image. A 2023 article by Airlangga University researchers succinctly described the essence of FOMO: that it triggers compulsive behaviours aimed at fulfilling the basic human need for connection and social inclusion, and thus affecting how consumers engage with brands and make purchasing decisions.

On a graver note, Dr Yusniza Kamarulzaman, Professor of Marketing, and Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics, Universiti Malaya, said that social media plays a significant role in exacerbating the FOMO phenomenon. “The constant connectivity and real-time updates on social media platforms create a sense of urgency and a fear of being left out, leading to increased anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction with life.”

“Social media platforms capitalise on FOMO by using tactics like notifications, live updates, and disappearing messages to keep users engaged and constantly checking back, which can lead to compulsive behaviours and a cycle of seeking validation and connection. Also, the culture of comparison on social media, where users showcase curated and often idealised versions of their lives, can intensify feelings of inadequacy and the need to measure up, driving individuals to engage in risky behaviours to maintain a certain image or status.”

This so-called ‘nature’ of social media and the constant exposure to others’ seemingly perfect lives is the one contributing to the amplification of FOMO and its negative effects on mental health and wellbeing, she explained.

Fortunately, Yusniza also shared some typical tactics employed by companies that leverage on FOMO to create a sense of urgency and drive consumer action. “Be aware when they show that something is in demand, which can motivate consumers to take action to avoid missing out on an opportunity. Especially so when they say that an offer won’t last; because this will create a sense of urgency by emphasising that an offer is limited, or time-sensitive, which in turn can prompt consumers to make a purchase decision quickly.”

Another typical tactic is by creating limited edition products or lead magnets. These offers can create a sense of scarcity and increase the perceived value of the offering, thus encouraging us to (unnecessarily) buy their products. Strategies that may also drive consumer engagement and interest include the display of social proof notifications, such as testimonials and reviews, and by incorporating live events into content marketing. And in the Malaysian context, incorporating the word ‘viral’ in your product’s name seems to do the trick as well.

“Basically, all these tactics and strategies tap into the psychological effects of urgency, scarcity, and social proof, to influence consumer behaviour and increase engagement with brands and products,” she elaborated.

So, as we get into the whirlwind of Raya preparations and festivities, let’s take a moment to catch our breath and remember what truly matters. Aidilfitri isn’t about keeping up with the virtual Raya Joneses or outdoing each other’s open house spreads. It’s about those heart-warming moments spent with loved ones, the laughter echoing through the halls, and the warmth of shared blessings.

Let’s not fall prey to the shiny allure of FOMO-induced consumerism, where every scroll through social media is calling us to buy, buy, buy (or eat, eat, eat?). Instead, let’s savour the joy of simplicity, finding happiness in the little things and gratitude for what we already have. Cherish the connections we share and the memories we create, for in these moments lie the true richness of Aidilfitri.

Selamat Hari Raya, everyone!

Associate Professor Ir. Dr Nahrizul Adib Kadri is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Engineering, and former Director of Corporate Communications Centre, Universiti Malaya.