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Science Says Using YouTube and Google the Wrong Way Leads to Extreme Overconfidence (and the Illusion of Explanatory Depth)

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I’ve learned to do a lot of things by watching YouTube videos. Wire a four-way circuit. Replace the control board on a clothes dryer. Create complicated (at least to me) spreadsheet pivot tables.

Granted, “learned” is an overstatement. I had a basic sense of what to do. Most of what I learned actually came from doing, and struggling, and eventually figuring out – not from watching.

Even though I went into those tasks, and plenty more, extremely confident that they would be a breeze.

Turns out I’m not alone. 

A study published last year in Royal Society Open Science found that people who watched a three-minute video showing a pilot landing a plane were 30 percent more confident that they could land a plane in an emergency than those who did not – even though the video never even showed the pilot’s hands.

Overclaiming

One possibility involves what social psychologists call “overclaiming,” or claiming to know or be able to do things you can’t. Most of us overclaim at least some of the time. We don’t want to feel left out, or lesser than. Or we want people to think better of us. 

Or we’re just faking it till we make it.

Oddly enough, overclaiming is somewhat natural. We all suffer to some degree from memory bias, the tendency to believe things we encounter are familiar – especially those we’ve previously learned about. If you took physics in high school, it’s natural to assume you still can explain the covariance principle in detail. (Not me; I barely remember P=MV.)

A 2015 study found that recent college graduates vastly overestimated – overclaimed – how much they knew about their area of concentrated study, and dramatically underestimated just how much they had already forgotten.

Social psychologists call that the illusion of explanatory depth: Assuming you can write or speak extensively about a particular subject, when you in fact can barely scratch the surface.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

Another possibility involves the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias in which people believe they are smarter and more skilled than they actually are. Combine a lack of self-awareness with low cognitive ability, and boom: You overestimate your own intelligence and competence. 

As Dunning, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, says, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. The skills you need to produce the right answer are the very same skills you need to recognize the right answer.”

As Bertrand Russell said, “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

Or as my grandfather said, “The dumber you are, the more you think you know.”

Sum it all up, and if you’ve become a D-K not only can you not execute a particular task effectively, you also lack the ability to accurately evaluate your own level of skill.

The Better-Than-Average Effect

Most people are familiar with the famous survey that revealed over 80 percent of respondents claimed to be above-average drivers even though that’s mathematically impossible, and even though the respondents had, at some point in their lives, been injured in car accidents. (In fact, a later study found that fewer than 1 percent of respondents considered themselves “worse than average.”)

Findings like that are easy to laugh at, until you realize that most people think they’re above average at almost everything. A meta-analysis of a number of studies shows that people rate themselves as above average in a wide range of things: creativity, intelligence, dependability, athleticism, honesty, friendliness, etc. 

Social psychologists call that the better-than-average effect: Give us a survey about almost any trait, and the vast majority of us will rate ourselves as above average.

All of which takes us back to YouTube.

Seeing Isn’t Doing

A study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology involved a simple experiment. First, participants were asked questions like, “What is gluten?” One group was allowed to use the Internet to help answer the question. The other group was not. 

Then each group was given additional questions, and asked to rate their understanding of those topics. 

What happened? The “google” group dramatically overrated their understanding of the subsequent topics. Why? As the researchers theorize, “Searching the Internet for explanatory knowledge creates an illusion whereby people mistake access (my italics) to information for their own personal understanding of the information.” 

Or in simple terms, thinking I know where to get information makes me think I already have that information “in my head.”

Which is what happens every time I watch a YouTube video, or do a Google search to learn how to do something. And especially if I watch the same video a number of times. 

A study published in Psychological Science had participants watch skill-based videos a varying number of times; some people only watched a video once, while others watched the same video as many as 20 times. 

You can guess where this is headed: While people who watched a video multiple times were much more confident they had acquired the skill, they performed no better than people who only watched the video once.

So how can you avoid being overconfident or overclaiming? Or the better-than-average effect, or the illusion of explanatory depth? Or – gasp – the dreaded Dunning-Kruger Effect? 

The best way is to not just think, but also do. Try to wire that circuit. Try to create those pivot tables. Try to actually do whatever you think you’ve learned.

Do that, and several good things happen. One, you’ll realize you don’t know as much as you think you do. That will make you a better leader; research shows humble leaders are not only more likable, they’re also more effective

More importantly, you’ll actually figure out how to do what you think you’ve learned. Research shows self-testing – which you’re doing if you’re actually trying to put into practice something you think you’ve learned – dramatically speeds up the learning process, and makes that learning much more “sticky.”

And there’s a third benefit. 

You’ll no longer be overconfident, because your level of confidence will be based on actual results.

Not on a self-protective instinct or cognitive bias.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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