Mind Over Meal: Loss Aversion and the ‘Fear of Missing Out’

Why does describing food as ‘limited release’ immediately make us want it?

Emily Jacobs

Does anyone actually care if the Cronut is any good?

No one likes waiting in line on a hot summer day in New York City, but you can bet that thousands of people will brave three hours on a stifling, muggy line in hopes of getting a Cronut, ramen burger, or whatever else the trendy food item of the week is.  Similarly, while many people roll their eyes at the rising cost of a cup of coffee at their local shop, they happily pay 20 to 30 percent more for a limited-release single-origin brew.  Or a special-release beer, hyped-up burger, seasonal menu item… the list goes on and on.  Name a dish and as long as there’s chance that they won’t be able to get it, many otherwise sensible food lovers will go to great lengths just so they don’t miss out.

Many people have heard of the phenomenon known as Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO), but few understand its psychological basis. According to psychological research, fear of missing out, whether it’s on a great meal at restaurant week or the daily cupcake special at Magnolia, comes from a common trick our brains play on us known as “loss aversion.”  Loss aversion is a tendency that’s hard-wired into our brains that makes us fear loss more than we seek gains. It’s a tactic that many restaurateurs are familiar with and readily use when marketing food and drinks that are “limited release,” “seasonal,” “weekly special,” and so on — all phrases that suggest you might miss out on experiencing their product.  But at the end of the day, is the seasonal soft-shell crab sandwich, limited-release IPA, or even the cronut worth all the hassle? Probably not, but to our brains, not missing out on it certainly is. 

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