From make-up tutorials to cooking tips, it seems we can’t get enough of demos on social media.
Now, scientists say they know why. A new study claims watching others perform a task gives us an ‘inflated sense of competence’.
According to scientists, we get a boost in confidence when seeing these videos, even if in reality our skills haven’t improved at all.
‘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 Michael Kardas, a researcher at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and author of the study published in the journal Psychological Science.
‘Our findings suggest that merely watching others could cause people to attempt skills that they might not be ready or able to perform themselves,’ he said.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have made it easy to record, share, and access instructional videos.
But it’s not known if watching these videos without practicing the demonstrated skills actually improves our ability to perform them, so Kardas, along with study co-author 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.
The study showed that people who watched the five-second video 20 times were much more confident in their ability to pull off the trick than were those who watched the video just once.
By contrast, people who simple read or thought about the trick for an extended period of time did not show this confidence boost.
The results provided initial evidence that repeated viewing may lead people to have an inflated sense of competence.
To find out whether this sense of competence is supported by actual performance, the researchers tested a group of 193 participants on their dart-throwing abilities.
Participants who watched a demo video 20 times estimated that they would score more points than those who saw the video just once.
The group that watched the video 20 times also predicted that they would be more likely to hit the bull’s eye and said they had learned more technique and improved more after watching the video.
However, these perceptions did not line up with reality: people who watched the video many times did not score better than those who saw it just once.
The researchers also observed this same pattern in other activities, including doing the moonwalk, playing a computer game and juggling.
The more that participants watched others perform these skills, the more they overestimated their own abilities.
But 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 hand did not show exposure-related overconfidence, suggesting that people may feel confident only when they can track the specific steps and actions involved in performing a skill.
But thinking about detailed steps of learning technical information about the objects involved did not lead participants to form more accurate perceptions.
In an experiment focused on juggling, only participants who were able to hold the pins after watching a juggling video 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.’
For future studies, the researchers are interested in testing other strategies – such as playing virtual-reality games – that might mitigate the overconfidence effect, helping people to better appreciate the limitations inherent in merely watching others.
CAN YOU LEARN WHILE YOU NAP?
It is the perfect learning shortcut, to play a language tape or revision recording at night while you are asleep.
But those desperately hoping the information will go in as they snooze may be disappointed.
Scientists have found that the brain does take in what it hears during REM sleep – the time spent mostly dreaming, usually in the morning before we wake up.
Leaving a tape running overnight is probably counter-productive as information gained in deep sleep can be completely lost.
French researchers found that sound played during certain parts of deep sleep may make information harder to learn when you wake up than if you had never heard it before.
That is thought to be because the brain is busy erasing memories at this time, and the new knowledge is dumped along with them.
In a study published by experts from PSL Research University in Paris in August 2017, researchers tested sleep learning by playing 20 participants white noise, which contained patterns of sound.
The sounds heard during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep were remembered by these people when they woke up.
They found it easier to identify the white noise which had repeated sounds in it because they had heard it while asleep.
But the noise played while people were in deep sleep, which makes up almost a third of our slumbers, was forgotten.