FOFO can have a profound negative impact if you let it get too far. We break down this complex psychological barrier and investigate potential solutions.
Have you ever consciously not looked at your finances for a while because you were worried about how broke you might find out to be? Or not asked a friend a sensitive question for fear of getting the “wrong” answer? Or delayed a scheduled meeting with your boss because you had a feeling you might be getting negative feedback? Well, you’re not alone — and there’s a term for that! It’s called the “Fear of Finding Out”.
What Is FOFO?
FOFO, short for Fear Of Finding Out, is a phenomenon in which a person avoids learning certain information, particularly about themselves or events in their life, due to anxiety or fear.
It can stem from various sources, including past trauma, social barriers, or anxiety about the unknown. However, with the right strategies and support, it is possible to manage FOFO.
While it is not a formally recognized condition, it can have a negative impact on mental health and well-being. Here we discuss what FOFO is, why it’s important to recognize the signs, and how you can better manage your fear.
FOFO, Fear of Knowing and the Ostrich Effect
Historically, psychologists have looked at the concept of a “fear of knowing” rather than a fear of finding out to explain why some people may experience FOFO in specific areas of their lives, such as with their health or finances.
The famous American psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested a fear of knowing is “defensive, in the sense that it is a protection of our self-esteem, of our love and respect for ourselves.” In that sense, the term is a bit more philosophical — you might be afraid of really getting to know yourself, for example, in order to protect your status-quo: What if you find out that you want to do something completely different with your life than you’re doing right now?
The actual uses of FOFO seem to be more modern (perhaps only in the last 10 years) and more on the practical side, but there are some parallels between fear of finding out and what Maslow describes. While clinically there is no specific condition called FOFO, the term is used widely by various institutions to address a common psychological issue.
For instance, a 2017 report looked into areas where there might be psychological barriers to receiving a medical diagnosis. The report highlighted the term FOFO as a way of describing why a person with sometimes serious medical issues wouldn’t seek medical care.
Another very similar concept is the “Ostrich Effect” — a cognitive bias often discussed in the realm of finances. Ostriches don’t actually do this, by the way, but we all know the pictures of ostriches with their head stuck in the sand to avoid (noticing) danger.
The Ostrich Effect describes, for example, the fact that investors tend to check their portfolio more frequently when it is performing well, but avoid information when it’s not. This leads to them making biased and less informed decisions on their investments. But the Ostrich Effect is seen in the domains of physical and mental health and personal development alike: If you’re working on losing weight, but are afraid of what the scale might say — and therefore never weigh yourself — the Ostrich effect is showing.
In short: FOFO describes the fear that keeps you from seeking out useful, albeit scary, information. You might overcome that anxiety and still manage to do the sensible thing — make that appointment, ask that question, set that boundary. The Ostrich Effect is what happens if you don’t: You’ve got your head in the sand because of FOFO.
Where Does FOFO Stem From?
Fear of finding out is not limited to medical situations; it can arise in various areas of life, such as relationships, careers, finances, and personal development, and can stem from various sources, including past trauma, fears of rejection or failure, or even general anxiety about the unknown.
For example, in 1986, psychologist Pierre Lacocque explained that we might even fear the change that knowledge will bring, even positive changes like success. He comments, “We all tend to run away from this existential choice [e.g., making the decision to find out], fearing, among other things, change, rejection from others […] and the aloneness it may bring.” However, a significant barrier to overcoming these fears is that we have to make ourselves vulnerable.
Psychologists have found that avoidance (in this case, of making a decision) is a self-defense mechanism. For example, in business, an entrepreneur may avoid conducting market research on their product or service because they fear that they might discover that there is no demand for it. Similarly, a person may avoid seeking feedback on their work or performance due to fear of criticism or rejection.
We learn through conditioning that by avoiding difficult situations like these, we can bypass the feelings of vulnerability and discomfort they may bring. In essence, we condition the reaction of FOFO to occur so that we remove the object of our fear. In a relationship, for instance — an individual may avoid confronting their partner about issues in the relationship because they fear that it might lead to a breakup. However, this fear can prevent the couple from addressing the issues in the relationship and finding solutions, leading to the relationship’s deterioration.
In many aspects, a large barrier to overcoming these fears is that we have to make ourselves vulnerable and be emotionally open to whatever the outcome may be.
What Impact Does FOFO Have?
The impact of FOFO can be significant and far-reaching. For example, one study highlights that a third of adults have delayed treatment which they knew was necessary, and some of them do so due to fear of having a serious illness. People who experience FOFO may avoid seeking out important information or feedback, which can lead to missed opportunities, mistakes or even health risks, such as heart attacks, cancer and other urgent conditions.
In non-medical settings, FOFO can also cause individuals to isolate themselves socially or professionally, as they may be afraid to confront difficult conversations or situations. Recent research has highlighted that a disconnection from others can often exacerbate existing fears, creating long-term conditions. Over time, this avoidance can contribute to stagnation and feeling “stuck” in life.
In other cases, FOFO may be related to financial matters, where individuals are afraid to confront their debts or take a closer look at their spending habits for fear of what they might find. As these debts grow, it only worsens anxiety. And according to research, this can devolve into depression and anxiety, damaging overall well-being.
How Can You Manage FOFO?
If you are experiencing FOFO, there are several strategies you can use to manage your anxiety and move forward. One important step is to recognize that avoidance is not a solution and that confronting difficult information or situations is often necessary for growth and progress. This may mean seeking feedback from others, talking to a professional therapist or coach, or taking concrete steps toward resolving a problem or addressing a concern.
To reduce the negative outcomes of FOFO in the long-term, you might want to try:
- Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion. Learn to sit with uncomfortable emotions and thoughts without judgment. Try to be kind and forgiving towards yourself as you navigate difficult situations. Develop a regular mindfulness practice, such as meditation, nature therapy, or yoga to help reduce anxiety.
- Seek out support from others. Talk to a trusted friend or family member or join a support group. By sharing your fears and concerns with others, you can gain perspective, find new solutions to problems and begin to build a sense of community and connection. This can help alleviate feelings of isolation and anxiety.
- Set up external mechanisms. This is especially useful for financial FOFO: Always too anxious to check your balance? Have it sent to your inbox regularly, where you can’t help but see it, or set up an automatic notification when your balance drops below a certain point. This can save you the stress of having to overcome your FOFO each time you need to make a financial decision.
When you notice that in a particular situation, FOFO might be what’s holding you back, there are particular steps you can take to overcome it:
- Break it down. By breaking down the process into smaller steps, someone with FOFO can feel more in control of the situation and build confidence in their ability to handle it. This can help reduce anxiety and increase their willingness to seek the information needed.
- Ask yourself the following: at this stage, are you avoiding information that might be helpful to move on to the next step? If yes, why are you doing so? If you have FOFO of a specific answer to a specific question, call to mind that even in that worst case scenario, there are steps you can take now to prepare yourself.
- Once you have all that clear, it should be a lot easier to ask that hard question you’ve been avoiding. If you struggle, try and get as much help as necessary from others that you trust.
Read more: Tough decisions? How to make good choices
It is important to note that everyone’s experience with FOFO is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor can be beneficial in developing personalized strategies for managing FOFO and addressing any underlying fears or anxieties.
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