March 12, 2018

Overconfident Online Learners

Whether it's how to throw a curveball, sand a floor or do the moonwalk, online videos make it look easy. And that's a problem.

If you want to fix a leaky faucet, throw a curve-ball, prune a bush, or clip your cat or dog's nails, you can find a YouTube showing you how to do it. But does that mean you are any closer to actually doing any of these things? Not really. Social media platforms have made it easy to record, share and access instructional videos, but watching videos without practicing the skills they demonstrate does little — or nothing — to actually improve your ability to perform them.

When people watch how-to videos on YouTube, Facebook or Instagram, they are likely to feel more confidence in their abilities than is realistic, say researchers at The University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. Video demos by real experts make those watching at home think they can do it too, no problem.

Watching others can encourage us to try skills we might not be ready or able to perform ourselves.

Of course, the skills people demonstrate in instructional videos are usually the result of quite a bit of practice. The videos don't generally show the ups and downs of learning. They are designed to make it look easy.

“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,” Michael Kardas, the author of a recent study, said in a statement. “Our findings suggest that merely watching others could cause people to attempt skills that they might not be ready or able to perform themselves.”

The study used a series of six experiments to test the idea. In one, participants either watched a video of the “tablecloth trick,” in which a person pulls a tablecloth off a table without disturbing the placesettings on top; read complete step-by-step instructions for performing the trick; or were told to simply think about how to do it.

Watching the 5-second video 20 times made participants much more confident in their ability to do the trick those people who watched the video once. People who simply read or thought about the trick for an extended period of time did not show this confidence boost.

To test whether the confidence instructional videos seem to impart actually affects performance, Kardas and his co-author, Ed O'Brien, tested the dart-throwing abilities of about 200 participants in another experiment. Once again, people who watched a demo video 20 times said that they would score more points than those who saw the video only once. They also claimed they had improved more and predicted that they would be more likely to make a bull's-eye after watching the video, predictions that also turned out not to be the case.

Whether it was videos about doing the moonwalk, playing a digital computer game or juggling, the more participants watched others perform these skills, the more they overestimated their own abilities.

The only time people's estimates of their skills became more realistic was when participants were asked to hold juggling pins after watching a juggling video. Faced with the actual size and weight of the pins, they revised their estimates, realizing they were less capable than they had thought while watching others perform.

“We see this as a potentially widespread phenomenon given that people have daily access to outlets for watching others perform,” said 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.”

There is much to be learned from online tutorials. The trick is to remain aware of the fact that the people you are watching are experienced, and you are not, at least not yet. So you may want to think twice before planning to sand your own floors based on a YouTube video.

The study is published in Psychological Science.

NOTE: We regret that we cannot answer personal medical questions.
© 2016 interMDnet Corporation.