The YouTube Effect: Watching Experts Makes Us Overconfident But Not Skilled

I’m coining a phrase today and calling it The YouTube Effect. It’s about how watching experts do something makes us overconfident, but does not make us more skilled. I was listening to the Hidden Brain podcast, specifically the episode titled “Close Enough: The Lure Of Living Through Others.” One of the segments was based on the research of Ed O’Brien, and titled Easier Seen Than Done: Merely Watching Others Perform Can Foster an Illusion of Skill Acquisition. Here’s the abstract of the research:

Modern technologies such as YouTube afford unprecedented access to the skilled performances of other people. Six experiments (N = 2,225) reveal that repeatedly watching others can foster an illusion of skill acquisition. The more people merely watch others perform (without actually practicing themselves), the more they nonetheless believe they could perform the skill, too (Experiment 1). However, people’s actual abilities—from throwing darts and doing the moonwalk to playing an online game—do not improve after merely watching others, despite predictions to the contrary (Experiments 2–4). What do viewers see that makes them think they are learning? We found that extensive viewing allows people to track what steps to take (Experiment 5) but not how those steps feel when taking them. Accordingly, experiencing a “taste” of performing attenuates the illusion: Watching others juggle but then holding the pins oneself tempers perceived change in one’s own ability (Experiment 6). These findings highlight unforeseen problems for self-assessment when watching other people.

I’ve seen this overconfidence manifested many times. People expect to be good at something, especially when they’ve done their YouTube research. But it turns out that their YouTube research has increased their confidence while having no effect on increasing their skill.

A common result is, when faced with the actual tasks, they become frustrated because they’re not as good as they thought they were. Then we head down this pathway, as discussed in a post from March, 2018, titled Mental Toughness Is The Key To Training. From that post:

People attending our programs want and expect to be successful and a high achiever while here. But during the course they realize that things are hard and that it takes a lot of time, effort and sweat to become good at things. Sometimes that time is longer than the length of the course. Because we’re busy doing things (not just talking about things) every day, there are a large number of new things that we’re working toward proficiency with at any given time.

When things get hard, people get frustrated; the experience of not being great at something is in conflict with the expectations they had of being a successful high achiever. This is especially true for people who are naturally smart or athletically gifted – they’re used to things coming easy.

This conflict between their expectations of being really good and the reality of struggling and not feeling successful breeds negative feelings. At this point, a person has three options:

  • They blame themselves for the negative feelings, resulting in low confidence.
  • They blame the instructor or course for the negative feelings. They feel the course or instructor is bad because they’re not great at all of the skills presented.
  • They realize that this is where growth happens, and it’s part of the process. They work through the negative feelings and they keep working at it.

I don’t care if you agree or don’t agree with the research. I do care that, if you’re coming to a field school course (or attending a field course with any reputable instructor), you’re aware of this phenomenon and that it will likely affect your experience.

Having Done Is A Different Animal Than Knowing How
When I used to interview people who wanted to go on the tv show Naked & Afraid, I was careful to separate having done from knowing how. Everyone, it seemed, knew how to do everything. So I was careful to ask how many times they had done something, not if they knew how. A common answer was “I haven’t actually done it, but I know how and I could if I needed to.” Sound familiar? Its what the research is talking about; overconfidence based on watching others.

Imagining Things In Your Head Is Not The Same As Muscle Memory
So what is the solution? Time spent doing. Preferably time spent doing in the field. Pair this with some self-knowledge and the realization that things will be hard and that you will be challenged, regardless of how many times you’ve seen others do it, and you’re setting yourself up for success in the long run.

In the Hidden Brain podcast linked above, they talked about how many modern people will try things out until they get difficult, then stop participating. One of the people interviewed talked about getting a music instrument with the intent on becoming a skilled musician, then after playing with it for a while, put it in the closet to gather dust. Like the instrument, their dream of becoming a skilled musician was then ignored to gather dust as well. It’s challenging to maintain motivation over time. We all know that. The solution: a community that holds you accountable. That’s what we create on our semester courses. That’s what we’re building online at Join us.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Shayne White

    I think you’re spot on Tim. While the internet has given us so much opportunity to learn, there is an experiential element that cannot be virtualized.

  • Thanks Shayne. It’s super interesting to me for several reasons. First, our business is finally getting on board with online learning, and it has a huge impact on how to design a lesson where people actually learn. Second, with the coronavirus, my kids (and everyone else’s kids) are learning from home. Again, what constitutes an effective learning design here? I think people are just figuring these questions out now, as we speak. Thanks for the comment! It seems like a million years ago that you launched me on this blogging journey – thanks again for that.

  • This comment is interesting, it’s from our online network at (free to join).

    “This study is also interesting to think about in conjunction with work in the sport psychology literature on visualization improving physical skill (basically imagining things in your head having an actual benefit). When thinking about both studies, it sounds like the big difference to note is that those visualization studies are about improving *existing* physical skills through deliberate mental visualization (no jumping past the tedious parts). So those benefits don’t necessarily apply to learning new skills someone has never done in real life. I also strongly doubt they would apply if people fast forward through any hard or tedious-but-vital parts in their visualization (perhaps thinking, “ehh it’ll work out for me, I don’t need to spend time visualizing it now”).”

    So the takeaway is that while watching others do things when you have no experience is not helpful for skill development, watching them do things when you have some experience can be hugely helpful in skill development.

  • Fleur

    I read your blog post about your ‘Ketosis Adventure’ whilst fueling with pemmican and snowshoeing. I adore your writing style. -F

  • Thank for the comment, but that was a guest post by Jerrell Friesen.

  • Joe Flowers

    This is an amazing post, and I don’t think a lot of people will take it to heart as an important effect that is happening right now. Steve Watts and I had a long talk about the lack of doing vs knowing and this goes right along with his observations as well. Fantastic

  • Thanks Joe. I look forward to sharing a campfire again sometime soon.

  • Peter Magnin

    So well said Tim! I love love love research backed theories and I’m very excited that you took the time to write this blog. I will definitely be passing this along to many people, as its an extremely valuable lesson. I hope your doing well, and I hope to cross paths again soon! Miss you friend.


  • Thanks Peter. I hope you’re well and safe. Interesting times!
Private community & online learning platform.

JMB Blog & Media Hub
Home to our blog, videos, podcast and photos, going back to 2006.

JMBS Calendar
All of our upcoming events.

Typos, Etc.
Anything that appears to be an error in spelling or grammar is actually the author’s clever use of the vernacular, and as such is not an error, but rather a carefully placed literary device demonstrating prodigious artistic prowess.

Fediverse & Mastodon
Follow us and comment on Mastodon and the Fediverse. We’re at

Email List
Join our email list for a weekly recap of our posts.

Featured In:
Jack Mountain Bushcraft Media Appearances Image

Private Community & Online Learning Platform graphic
Western Colorado University
Academic Partner

WSU graphic

Maine Wilderness Guides Organization Quality Endorsement Award

Life Member – Maine Professional Guides Association
mpga graphic
Life Member – Maine Wilderness Guides Organization
mwgo graphic