Of Moonwalks and Tablecloths

Participants watched a video of an expert performing a tablecloth trick (removing the tablecloth from a set table) before rating their own abilities to do the same trick.

Sully Science via Michael Kardas and Ed O'Brien

With widespread accessibility to video-sharing websites, such as YouTube, one might assume that any skill can be acquired by simply watching performances and demonstrations. A new study has shown, however, that such confidence is misplaced.

In a series of experiments involving more than 2,000 participants, behavioral scientists Michael Kardas and Ed O’Brien, at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, investigated how watching videos of other people performing complex skills affected viewers’ perceptions of their own ability to perform the same skills. In one experiment, participants watched a five-second video of an expert deftly removing a tablecloth from a set table without disturbing the dishes on it. Half of the participants viewed the clip once, while the other half viewed it twenty times. Those who saw the video repeatedly were more confident that they could successfully perform the tablecloth trick without practicing first, compared to those who viewed the clip once.

Subsequent experiments were structured similarly, with either one-time or repeated exposure to videos of dart throwing, moonwalking, and mirror-tracing (tracing an image as if viewed through a mirror, such that motor movements must be made in reverse), followed by a prediction of one’s ability to execute those tasks. In these experiments, however, participants were then tested on how well they could throw a dart, moonwalk, and mirror-trace a maze. Across all the experiments, participants who watched the videos several times reported greater confidence in how well they could complete the task. Crucially, however, repeated video-watching did not improve actual abilities: those who watched the videos multiple times performed no better than those who watched the videos only once.

Kardas and O’Brien concluded that the more that people merely watch others, the better they think they can perform a skill themselves. Once the skill is attempted, those expectations fall short. Kardas urges those seeking to acquire a new skill to get hands-on training or, if learning from videos, to allow more time for practice than they anticipate needing. (Psychological Science)

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