A Guide to Overcoming FOBO, the Fear of Better Options
How to get better at making decisions when every choice looks like a good one
Perhaps one of these scenarios feels familiar: Wasting an hour swiping through Tinder, only to emerge with nothing but a tired thumb. Working your way through endless offerings on Netflix (and Amazon Prime, Hulu, and HBO On Demand) and eventually falling asleep after failing to watch anything. Taking so long to decide on an Uber Eats order that by the time you actually land on a meal, you’re too hungry to wait for it to arrive and make yourself a sandwich instead.
We have more choice than ever in our daily lives — but while choice is supposed to feel liberating, it can often feel exhausting instead. Research has shown that we aren’t wired to handle an abundance of decisions: In one recent study, researchers using an MRI to monitor participants’ brains noticed more activity when the subjects had to choose one option out of 12 than when the pool of choices was six or 24. When faced with too many choices, people became as disengaged as when they had too few.
There are a few different names for this sort of paralyzing fatigue. Psychologist Barry Schwartz highlighted what he called “the paradox of choice” in his 2004 book of the same name. Some experts call it “choice overload” or “overchoice.” And some call it, simply, FOBO: the fear of better options.
It’s a catchy term for something that can have a real, detrimental effect on our lives. FOBO “paralyzes choice and can make you feel bad about even a good choice, with a grass-is-greener effect,” explains Colin Camerer, a co-author of the MRI study and a professor of behavioral economics at Caltech. “[Another] outcome is that we can postpone important choices — like picking a company 401(k) or getting serious about a relationship — because there are too many options and the process seems overwhelming.”
Some people will naturally be more susceptible to this type of thinking than others.
A branch of psychology research divides people into two categories: minimizers, also known as “satisficers”, who search until they find an option that’s good enough to meet all their criteria, and then stop; and maximizers, who want to find the very…