Fear of Missing Out: Does FOMO drive the tragedy of the commons?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series FoMO
Clearing rainforest for farmland in southern Mexico.

A classic example of the tragedy of commons: Widespread destruction of rainforests to make way for agriculture. This photo was taken after fire was used in a rainforest clearance, then it was provided via Wikimedia Commons for public use.

Do you know the dilemma called the tragedy of the commons?

It occurs when individuals make decisions according to self-interest; but when everyone does that, their individual actions deplete or destroy a common resource so that all are hurt. The classic example is free grazing on public land. It’s rational for me to let my herd eat freely, but when all herdsmen do the same, we end up destroying the fields. The tragedy of the commons applies to many situations, such as overpopulation and the arms’ race, as described by ecologist Garrett Hardin in what has now become a classic scientific article.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) can hasten the tragedy. How do we know?

Consider this final exam question by University of Maryland psychologist Dylan Selterman. If this question was posed to you, what would you answer? [Spoiler alert: I tell you what students answer below.]

“Here you have the opportunity to earn some extra credit on your final paper grade. Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added onto your final paper grade. But there’s a catch: if more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points. Your responses will be anonymous to the rest of the class, only I will see the responses.”
[ ] 2 points
[ ] 6 points

Selterman wasn’t the first psychologist to pose this dilemma. It’s well known in academic circles. But he might be the first to post it in the Twitterverse. And it’s creating quite a stir.

How many students do you think earned points? How many classes didn’t end up with any points? Selterman has used this final exam question since 2008.

Over the years, only one class earned points. One.

Selterman says it’s another case of FOMO. Students pick 6 points because they’re afraid of missing out. But when too many students opt for 6 points, everyone loses.

Now, it’s a big leap from an extra-credit exam question to “real life.” But the role of FOMO and the tragedy of the commons is worth considering.

Would you select 2 points or 6 points?
What was your rationale?
Does FOMO hasten the tragedy of the commons?

Your opinion matters …

That’s the purpose of the OurValues project. We encourage civil discussion on important topics of the day. You are free to print out, repost and share these columns with friends. You can use them in your small group or class. Enjoy this week’s series!

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Series Navigation<< Fear of Missing Out: Just an affliction of young adults?Fear of Missing Out: Are we infecting our kids with FOMO? >>


  1. Todd says

    You’ve confused tragedy of the commons with game theory as does the writer of the article. Tragedy of the commons occurs most often in situations without defined property rights. The example the writer uses of herdsmen is simply solved by instituting personal property rights to the field. Pollution is an example of tragedy of the commons but is better explained as a negative extranality.

    Why bring up a 47 year-old article who’s hypothesis, over-population, has been proven over-blown, if not non-existent in the years since. We are wealthier, not poorer.

    That article is frightening: the abolition of property rights, eugenics, psychological fear…totalitarianism. It certainly is coercion. Coercion is also force. Force is violence. How are we to prosper in such a society of fear and force?

    I’m sorry, I’ll take liberty, freedom, and prosperity any day. There are tremendous incentives to engage in mutually beneficial voluntary exchanges, to innovate, create wealth, and improve standard of living.

    I’ve enjoyed the Our-Values series, but this post went off the deep end. First, fundamentally misunderstanding tragedy of the commons. Not understanding game theory. And most worrisome, propagating a failed theory.