There may be no greater repository of how-to information than YouTube, which has tutorials on everything from how to play Minecraft to how to invest. But watching demonstration videos may create a false sense of confidence, leading people to predict better performance than they can deliver, according to Chicago Booth PhD candidate Michael Kardas and Booth’s Ed O’Brien.

In a series of studies, the researchers find that watching demo videos multiple times tended to inflate people’s confidence. In one experiment, participants watched a short video of the old trick of pulling a tablecloth off a table without disturbing the objects resting on it. The number of times a participant watched the video ranged from one to 20. Other groups read about how to execute the trick or imagined doing it. Participants who watched the video 20 times rated their ability to perform the trick much higher than those who watched the video fewer times, read about the trick, or just imagined doing it.

Kardas and O’Brien didn’t ask anyone to perform the tablecloth trick, but in another experiment, the researchers showed participants a video of a person throwing darts and then asked study subjects to do the same. The more that participants watched the video, the better they thought they’d do at darts. But, ultimately, the performance of participants who had viewed the video 20 times wasn’t any better than that of those who had seen it just once.

The findings extended to other activities, from juggling to playing computer games to moonwalking. Participants who watched how-to videos multiple times always reported greater confidence than those who watched videos fewer times, but their performance failed to measure up to their predictions.

Why were people so poor at predicting their performance? One experiment offers a clue. When participants watched videos of someone juggling bowling pins and then held a bowling pin themselves, their predictions weren’t so high. In fact, when given the opportunity, participants reduced their previous estimates of their potential performance.

It may be that repeatedly watching performances removes people from the physical realities of performing a task, the researchers suggest.

“The experiential gap between seeing and doing may sometimes lead people to assume that they have learned more from merely watching than they have, fostering an illusion of skill acquisition,” they write. Previous research has consistently shown that people overrate their own capabilities, “and do not consider their ignorance until pressed.”

To really learn a skill, people need to both watch others and physically practice themselves. These studies suggest that simply watching feels like enough. So for safety reasons, people who are hoping to learn a skill via YouTube may want to take their (over)confidence into account.

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