Watching others makes people overconfident in their own abilities

March 8, 2018, Association for Psychological Science
Watching others makes people overconfident in their own abilities
Credit: Association for Psychological Science

Watching YouTube videos, Instagram demos, and Facebook tutorials may make us feel as though we're acquiring all sorts of new skills but it probably won't make us experts, according to research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"The more that people watched others, the more they felt they could perform the same skill, too—even when their abilities hadn't actually changed for the better," says study author Michael Kardas of The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. "Our findings suggest that merely watching others could cause people to attempt skills that they might not be ready or able to perform themselves."

Social media platforms have made it easy to record, share, and access instructional videos. But does watching videos without practicing the demonstrated skills actually improve our ability to perform them? Kardas and coauthor Ed O'Brien conducted a series of six experiments to find out.

In one online experiment, the researchers assigned 1,003 participants to watch a video, read step-by-step instructions, or merely think about performing the "tablecloth trick," which involves pulling a tablecloth off a table without disturbing the place settings on top. People who watched the 5-second video 20 times were much more confident in their ability to pull off the trick than were those who watched the video once. However, people who simply read or thought about the trick for an extended period of time did not show this confidence boost. These results provided initial evidence that repeated viewing may lead people to an inflated sense of competence.

To find out whether this perception is borne out by actual performance, Kardas and O'Brien tested a group of 193 participants on their dart-throwing abilities. Those who watched a demo video 20 times estimated that they would score more points than those who saw the video only once—this high-exposure group also predicted that they would be more likely to hit the bull's-eye and reported that they had learned more technique and improved more after watching the video.

But these perceptions did not line up with reality: People who watched the video many times scored no better than those who saw it once.

Kardas and O'Brien found evidence for this phenomenon in other domains, including doing the moonwalk, playing a digital computer game, and juggling. The more that participants watched others perform these skills, the more they overestimated their own abilities.

Why does repeatedly watching a video breed such overconfidence? Participants who watched a variation of the tablecloth trick video that did not show the performer's hands evidenced no exposure-related overconfidence, suggesting that people may feel confident only when they can track the specific steps and actions in performing a skill.

Thinking about detailed steps or learning technical information about the objects involved did not lead participants to form more accurate perceptions. In an experiment focused on juggling, only who were able to hold the pins after watching a juggling revised their estimates, reporting that they had learned less and were less capable than they originally thought after watching.

"We see this as a potentially widespread phenomenon given that people have daily access to outlets for watching others perform," says Kardas. "Anyone who goes online to look up tips before attempting a skill—from cooking techniques to DIY home repairs to X Games tricks—would benefit from knowing that they might be overconfident in their own abilities after watching, and should exercise caution before attempting similar skills themselves."

The researchers are interested in testing other strategies—such as playing virtual-reality games—that might mitigate the overconfidence effect, helping to better appreciate the limitations inherent in merely watching others.

Explore further: Can you boost your brain power through video?

More information: Michael Kardas et al, Easier Seen Than Done: Merely Watching Others Perform Can Foster an Illusion of Skill Acquisition, Psychological Science (2018). DOI: 10.1177/0956797617740646

Related Stories

Can you boost your brain power through video?

February 18, 2014
Watching video of simple tasks before carrying them out may boost the brain's structure, or plasticity, and increase motor skills, according to a study released today that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's ...

Not-so-guilty pleasure: Viewing cat videos boosts energy and positive emotions

June 16, 2015
If you get a warm, fuzzy feeling after watching cute cat videos online, the effect may be more profound than you think.

Sixth-graders can learn, perform hands-only CPR

November 11, 2017
Students as young as sixth-graders can learn and perform CPR effectively and should be targeted for training, according to preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2017, a premier ...

Study finds infants can learn to communicate from videos

January 22, 2015
Children under two years old can learn certain communication skills from a video, such as how to use signs in sign language, and perform similarly in tests when compared to babies taught by their parents, according to a new ...

Pokemon Go could help people who struggle socially

December 12, 2017
Video games may have a reputation for attracting introverts, but when it comes to augmented reality games like Pokémon Go, extroverts tend to be better players.

Recommended for you

Psychiatric disorders share an underlying genetic basis

June 21, 2018
Psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often run in families. In a new international collaboration, researchers explored the genetic connections between these and other disorders of the brain at ...

One year of school comes with an IQ bump, meta-analysis shows

June 21, 2018
A year of schooling leaves students with new knowledge, and it also equates with a small but noticeable increase to students' IQ, according to a systematic meta-analysis published in Psychological Science, a journal of the ...

Ketamine acts fast to treat depression and its effects last—but how?

June 21, 2018
In contrast to most antidepressant medications, which can take several weeks to reduce depressive symptoms, ketamine—a commonly used veterinary anesthetic—can lift a person out of a deep depression within minutes of its ...

New study debunks Dale Carnegie advice to 'put yourself in their shoes'

June 21, 2018
Putting yourself in someone else's shoes and relying on intuition or "gut instinct" isn't an accurate way to determine what they're thinking or feeling," say researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), the ...

Mindful movement may help lower stress, anxiety

June 21, 2018
Taking a walk may be a good opportunity to mentally review your to-do list, but using the time to instead be more mindful of your breathing and surroundings may help boost your wellbeing, according to researchers.

Brain tingles—first study of its kind reveals physiological benefits of ASMR

June 21, 2018
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) – the relaxing 'brain tingles' experienced by some people in response to specific triggers, such as whispering, tapping and slow hand movements – may have benefits for both ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.