Remember the myth about how sleeping on top of your textbook or tucking your flashcards underneath your pillow could help you retain the information by osmosis? You know — the one every bad student wished were true but very clearly wasn’t? Well, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, watching YouTube videos, Instagram demos and Facebook tutorials works pretty much the same way: That is, they don’t work at all.
Study author Michael Kardas and co-author Ed O’Brien — of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — originally set out to see if the rapid increase of online how-to videos meant people were actually learning more new skills. “Opportunities to watch others perform complex skills have proliferated through YouTube and social media,” says Kardas. “We wanted to test whether these opportunities might have unexpected costs when people try to watch and learn these skills from others.”
To do so, Kardas and O’Brien conducted a series of six experiments whereby they assigned 1,003 participants to watch a video on, read step-by-step instructions for or simply think about, performing the “tablecloth trick.”
Participants who watched the five-second tutorial 20 times were much more confident in their ability to perform said trick than those who only watched the video once, while participants who merely read or thought about the trick didn’t show any boost in their confidence.
According to Kardas, “When people watch others perform, they tend to focus on details of the person’s technique — that is, what to do,” says Kardas. “When they actually attempt the same skill themselves, however, they also gain access to how the skill feels upon performing it. And because these feelings are sometimes more complex than people initially assume, watching tends to boost confidence to a greater degree than it boosts actual ability.”
In another experiment, Kardas and O’Brien tested a group of 193 participants on their dart-throwing abilities. Again, they found that those people who watched the video 20 times scored no better than those who saw the video only once, even though the former group remarked at how they’d learned “certain techniques” that made them more confident in their ability to hit the bulls-eye.
These dart-throwing posers weren’t the only participants who became overly sure of themselves after watching some videos on “technique” either: The same phenomenon was true for other activities that required a specific skill set, including the moonwalk, playing computer games and juggling. (Confession time: I have been totally convinced I could juggle after watching an instructional video. I very much could not.)
To be clear, says Kardas, this sort of overconfidence isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “At times, watching others perform could have the benefit of making viewers feel confident enough to attempt a skill that they might otherwise feel reluctant to engage with,” explains Kardas. So maybe these videos won’t help you master the skill, but they’ll encourage you to give it a try.
Overconfidence has other benefits too — namely, in regards to how other people perceive you. In 2014, Time reported on a group of researchers at Newcastle University and University of Exeter who found, “Students who overestimated their own grades tended to be perceived as more talented, and students who underestimated their grades were seen as less talented, regardless of their actual capabilities.”
Still, while Kardas does see some benefits to being overconfident, he notes that there are potential consequences of the Jackass variety as well. “For activities that are potentially risky, like X Games stunts, feeling overconfident could prompt people to attempt skills that they’re neither ready nor able to perform effectively without additional training.”
And it’s exactly that sort of wildly optimistic attitude that forms the basis for every video that’s ever cheered me up when I’m in a bad mood.
For that, YouTube, I thank you.