Easier seen than done: Watching how-to videos on YouTube gives people false sense of expertise

It all looks so easy on YouTube – preparing Julie Child’s boeuf bourguignon, learning the latest dance step, repairing a faucet, assembling Ikea furniture.

Millions of how-to videos on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram have given people unprecedented access to the skilled performances of experts. Nevertheless, learning a new skill by watching a video on social media can also lead people to become overconfident in their own abilities, according to new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

In the paper, “Easier Seen Than Done: Merely Watching Others Perform Can Foster an Illusion of Skill Acquisition,” published in Psychological Science, Chicago Booth Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science Ed O’Brien and Booth PhD candidate Michael Kardas find that repeatedly watching others can foster an illusion of skill acquisition.

“The more that people merely watch others, the better they think they can perform the skill themselves,” said Kardas. “Yet, people’s actual abilities do not improve after merely watching others, despite predictions to the contrary.”

The researchers conducted a series of six experiments to test whether viewers account for the gap between seeing and doing.

Groups of participants watched instructional videos for different activities –performing a magic trick, throwing darts, executing Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk dance step, playing a computer game and juggling. The number of times the participants viewed the same video varied from one to 20 times.

The researchers then asked the participants to estimate how they thought they would do when asked to perform the activities. The participants who watched the video repeatedly predicted that they would perform better than those who watched only once, when in reality, the participants who watched the video many times scored no better than those who saw it once. Watching repeatedly instilled false confidence.

Two factors seem to be important here. One is that repeated viewings of instructional videos make people feel that they have learned enough to complete the task, even if they have never actually attempted it. The second is that instructional videos inevitably depict techniques that lead to success, which tends to instill confidence in the viewer.

“What do viewers see that makes them think they are learning?” the researchers asked. “We found that extensive viewing allows people to track what steps to take but not how those steps feel when taking them.”

What was missing was direct experience.

In one experiment, participants watched videos of people juggling bowling pins. The researchers then asked them to reflect on the task, read technical details related to the pins, or to hold the pins.

Participants who received a small taste of “doing” by simply holding the bowling pins themselves reported that they had learned significantly less than what they had initially thought after merely watching. Once they actually held the pins – as opposed to watching someone else hold the pins – they started to realize the complexities of what they were being asked to do.

The researchers also found that “watching” is inevitably selective. “If viewers do not even look at a moonwalker’s hips, their simulations may not incorporate hips,” the paper says.

The findings highlight unforeseen problems for self-assessment when watching other people. Although boosted confidence might encourage people to try activities they would otherwise avoid, perceptions of learning that exceed actual changes in ability could lead people to budget too little time for practice or hastily attempt risky activities, naïve to their low chances of success.