FOMO and the Pavlovian Response

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Photo by Musab Al Rawahi on Unsplash

In 1901, Ivan Pavlov researched the Conditioned Reflex by experimenting with dogs, mainly arriving at a point where a dog would salivate when it heard a sound associated with food. In the modern age, it seems we can elicit a similar response in people with a text message, phone ringing, app alert, or email when we hear that familiar “ding” and feel that familiar buzz.

While it may seem like a stretch to equate the research of a Russian physiologist over a century ago with the way we interact with our technology, just stop and think for a moment. If your mobile were to buzz or ring at this very moment, would you ignore it and keep reading? Probably not. You would feed a compulsion to pick up that device, unlock it, and react to whatever the notification was. It could be nothing — It may be a spam email, or it could be a text message from that person interested in buying your car. The fact remains that you reacted to a stimulus.

While we may not begin to salivate when our phones go off (or at least I hope you don’t unless it’s your pizza delivery that’s just arrived), we need to consider our dependence on technology. The more communication technology we have, the less we communicate. We are but digital replicas of ourselves and live electronically vicarious through social media, email addresses, and mobile phone numbers. One would think that if a massive EMP pulse were to hit the earth and permanently destroy all electronics on the planet, we’d stop “living” and start merely existing and not sure what to do next.

Several years ago, I chaired a meeting attended by nearly 40 people that were considered the leaders of their various disciplines. As I stood before the audience, without a word spoken, the chatter was deafening. All through the room phones buzzed, chirped and beeped and no sooner had the device demanded attention the owner (dare I say slave) of the device would dip their head to react to the stimulus. The scene was reminiscent of a David Attenborough documentary about meerkats. Occasionally one would rise, phone pressed to their ear and scurry from the room. Some returned, some did not.

Remove the devices from the equation and would my audience have been more attentive? I don’t think so. I think they’d be less alert as the focus would be split partially on my presentation, but mostly on what they were missing because their phones were elsewhere and were away from their desks and computers. I’d even go so far as to say my presentation would also be less attended if I banned electronic devices from the room.

You may or may not have heard of a term called “FOMO” or Fear Of Missing Out. Without getting into detail, some may consider this to be the domain of the teenager that lives phone-in-hand and continuously on Social Media. In reality, we all get FOMO to some degree. We’re not so interested in what is happening as much as “what else” is happening. Goodness forbids something, somewhere happens, is said, or gets posted online that we don’t know. How often have you been with a group of friends when someone comes flying in and interrupts with something along the lines of “Have You Heard?” Assuming you were none the wiser, remember the feeling of not knowing about what they were speaking? This behaviour is, to some degree, FOMO. People have always feared change and the unknown; the current climate of online existence simple exacerbates this.

In recent times, nearly all of us can recall a time (more likely several times) when we lost the use of a service we saw as “critical” to our very lives. A near panic state sets in when we can’t log on to Social Media, send a text message, read an email, or even open a browser to our favourite news website. When our batteries run down, and we cannot charge them, we start to feel genuine fear. We think that if we lose our connectivity via our electronic devices, we lose our connection with humanity.

During a recent weather event, we lost electrical services and mobile phone service. Many of us no longer have traditional land-line home phones and then many of us that do use a cordless phone that requires electricity to operate, rendering them useless. No power, no lights, and no mobile phone service with a dwindling battery and a setting sun can wreak havoc on even the sturdiest among us.

While storm season preparedness can mitigate this isolation, maybe our mindsets are what needs preparation as well. We can have candles, battery-operated lights and radios (along with lots of batteries) stocks of food and water, and even some old-school board games and a deck of cards, but dealing with FOMO will take some doing. Also, if we have an old school phone that still works and can call for help, we still feel cut off.

Like any reasonable health and lifestyle regime, maybe we need to start training ourselves to put the electronics away and disconnect for a while every day. If 30 minutes of physical activity every day should improve our health, maybe 30 minutes of digital detox every day will help even more (and while you’re sleeping doesn’t count — it needs to be a conscious effort)

Look after yourselves. Security of the mind and body is part of a well-rounded security strategy.

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog are my own and not those of any associated third party. The content is provided for general information, educational, and entertainment purposes and does not constitute legal advice or recommendations; do not rely upon it as such. Obtain appropriate legal advice in actual situations. All images, unless otherwise credited, are licensed through Shutterstock.


Aspiring CISO. Cyber Entertainer, Writer, and Presenter. Humanity, not machinery. An observer of how we use and abuse technology. Empathetic and altruistic.

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