Here's Why Watching Most Online Tutorials Is a Waste of Time

Sorry. But that TED talk isn't making you smarter.

YouTube video on smartphone

With so much information out on the Internet, it often feels like you can learn just about anything from simply clicking on a video. Indeed, watching TED talks on a regular basis is something that people frequently boast about, as though listening to the Dalai Lama or Bill Gates has brought them closer to riches or divinity.

According to a new study published in Psychological Science, however, it seems that sense of expertise that we all get from watching tutorials is dangerously overblown.

Michael Kardas of The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and co-author Ed O'Brien recently conducted a series of six experiments to determine just how effective these instructional videos really were.

In one experiment, they asked 1,003 participants to watch a video, read instruction, or figure out themselves how to perform the "tablecloth trick"—using the property of inertia to pull a tablecloth off of a table without breaking a single piece of china. People who watched the video 20 times or more were much more confident in their ability to pull it off than those who had only seen it once, or simply read the instructions or pondered the way to do it.

All you need to do is check out all of the "tablecloth trick fail" videos on YouTube to see that this was by no means the case.

Another experiment, this time on dart-throwing, with 193 volunteers rendered similar results. One group watched a video on how to hit a bulls-eye 20 times or more, whereas another group only saw the video once. As before, the group that watched the video dozens of times reported that they felt they had acquired greater dart-throwing skills and were more likely to hit a bull's eye than the control group. However, when put into practice, researchers found this was not the case.

The researchers did similar experiments with playing computer games, doing the moonwalk, and juggling and received similar results. In each case, people who watched a video dozens of times had an overblown sense of confidence in completing the task at hand.

"Our findings suggest that merely watching others could cause people to attempt skills that they might not be ready or able to perform themselves," Kardas said. "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."

This is especially true of some of the "challenges" that teens, in particular, post on social media nowadays, some of which can be dangerous to attempt without prior skills or knowledge. The old adage remains true: only practice makes perfect. But remember: YouTube is still incredibly useful. In fact, it led one entrepreneur to earn more than $16 million just last year. 

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more