I’m sure I could surf. After all, I’ve watched surfing videos on YouTube. It looks easy. I feel completely confident I could smoothly stay on the board and ride the wave. I’ve learned by watching. Or maybe not.
With YouTube, you can easily find a video to teach you any activity. Complex physical actions are presented as a series of simple steps. Experts demonstrate the actions with ease. I’ve always thought it would be cool to go surfing. And the internet could help. Maybe by watching some surfing videos I could learn to surf before I ever step on a Hawaiian beach. I’ve never been to Hawaii, but I would love to go surfing there.
Clearly people learn by watching others. We are all social learners. Learning by watching seems to be something that humans do and few other animals ever display. Consider, for example, the classic research by Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1961, 1963). They showed children a video of another person viciously attacking a large clown doll. After watching the video, children would routinely engage in similar aggressive behaviors. If the children didn’t watch the video, they were very unlikely to attack the clown doll. Observational learning occurs in young children. If you’ve ever had your child follow behind you and try to do what you were doing, you know this first hand.
The question has always been, what is learned by watching? Do you learn very general things or the exact behaviors? Are there limits of social learningby observer others? When must observational learning be accompanied by practicing?
In a new set of research, Michael Kardas and Ed O’Brien (2018) have investigated the limits of observational learning. Actually, what they found are the pitfalls of observational learning. People develop confidence from watching others. They believe they have learned to perform the skilled actions. This belief becomes very strong if people watch the skill activities repeatedly. But have they actually learned?
Kardas and O’Brien demonstrated the high level of observational confidence by showing people several different skilled behaviors. The research participants watched people pull a tablecloth from under the dishes – something I always wanted to try when I was a kid. Other participants watched dart throwing, moonwalking (the Michael Jackson dance), and juggling bowling pins. (No one watched surfing.)
If they watched the skilled behavior several times, people became confident they could do it. They were sure they could pull the tablecloth, hit the bullseye, and perform the dance move. You’ve watched. You’ve paid attention. You’ve seen the critical features. You feel you’ve learned something. And you certainly have learned something about the behavior. Call this overconfidence the YouTube Effect. People become confident after watching YouTube videos.
But have you learned to do it?
Although people watched and felt confident, performance didn’t improve. Kardas and O’Brien gave people an opportunity to try some of the behaviors. For example, they let people throw a dart after predicting how they would score. People made what they felt were reasonable predictions – they didn’t expect to hit the bullseye. Nonetheless, their actual score wasn’t as high as their predicted score. YouTube overconfidence.
After watching the moonwalk, people predicted how well they could do it. Did they think they could dance? Yes. Then Kardas and O’Brien videotaped them trying to moonwalk. Other people rated their moonwalking performance. Although people were confident in their dance moves, they didn’t become smooth operators. Another YouTube overconfidence effect. Raters scored their performances as pretty poor. Interestingly, after trying the moonwalk dance move, people realized that they didn’t actually have it. They realized they had overestimated their abilities. When asked to rate how they did, their assessments after the fact were lower than their predictions and similar to the raters’ evaluations.
Since Kardas and O’Brien found that people made better assessments after trying the dance moves, they designed one more study. This was the bowling pin juggling experiment. Again people repeatedly watched a skilled performance – someone juggling bowling pins. Luckily no one was asked to juggle afterwards. No one was hit in the head by a poorly thrown bowling pin. But in this experiment, people had a chance to reconsider their juggling confidence. They were asked to either read more about juggling or to simply hold a bowling pin. Reading about juggling didn’t decrease the YouTube overconfidence effect. But simply holding a bowling pin substantially reduced overconfidence. Having the feel of a bowling pin in their hands forced a re-assessment. Maybe juggling a bowling pin isn’t going to be easy. Maybe that expert made this look easier than it is.
We can learn a lot about skilled activities just by watching. We can understand the steps. We can see how to do it. But to be able to perform the skill, you must practice. Watching isn’t enough. YouTube provides confidence. But YouTube doesn’t supply the skill.
I’ve seen surfing videos. The experts make it look smooth and easy. I’ve also walked on a beach in southern California. I’ve seen the experts surfing. Again, smooth and simple. But I’ve also watched the novices who were trying to learn. Wipe-out. Although I think I would know what to do. Although I feel I would be more like the experts than those novices. I know what will happen. I may understand what to do, but I need to develop a feel for surfing. You can only learn how it feels to do something by actually doing it. I’m confident about the actual outcome if I tried to surf. Wipe-out.