WARNING: Watching expert videos makes you think you are more capable than you are

When we watch how-to videos on loop, we may get the smug thought of ‘I bet I could do that.’ But this overconfidence can backfire, and suddenly we are holding broken parts of a standing desk in despair. What went wrong? It looked so easy to build on the screen!

According to a new study published in Psychological Science, we tend to think we can become an expert of a skill after watching it done in a video. The researchers Michael Kardas and Ed O’Brien called this the “illusion of skill acquisition.”

Learning from a video is easier said than done

In different experiments, the researchers recruited participants to watch instructional videos on moonwalking, playing darts, and beating an online video game. Then, the participants were asked to predict how well they would do the skill and attempt the skill.

Turns out, watching a video on loop does not translate to being able to do the skill being taught on loop. Kardas and O’Brien found that “the more people merely watch others perform (without actually practicing themselves), the more they nonetheless believe they could perform the skill.” People who watched the video multiple times predicted that they would perform better than the group who watched the video only once. But ultimately, it did not matter if the participants watched a video once or 20 times —the participants earned low performance scores, regardless of how many times they had watched a how-to video.

From confidence to hubris

Watching videos inflates our confidence into hubris. “After watching a performance, people might jump right into skills that exceed their current abilities or budget too little time for practicing them,” the researchers warned. “Watching without practicing breeds confidence but not necessarily learning.”

To avoid these traps, you need to go one step beyond watching the video from your couch, and actually experience the subtleties within the performer’s skills for yourself. Kardas and O’Brien recommend mixing watching and practicing to do this. You only learn how hard it is to moonwalk when you’re attempting to drag your own feet.

“People get more out of watching after they have already attempted the skill, so try the skill yourself and then revisit your favorite how-to videos frequently to refine your technique,” they advise. “Learning skills takes time, and leaders and managers especially should make sure they’re encouraging employees to round out any digital training with first-hand practice experience.”