Although people may have good intentions when trying to learn by watching others, we explored unforeseen consequences of doing so: When people repeatedly watch others perform before ever attempting the skill themselves, they may overestimate the degree to which they can perform the skill, which is what we call an illusion of skill acquisition. This phenomenon is potentially important, because perceptions of learning likely guide choices about what skills to attempt and when.In the experiments, participants watched videos of the tablecloth trick (pulling a tablecloth off a table without disturbing dishes; experiments 1 and 5), throwing darts (experiment 2), doing the moonwalk (experiment 3), mirror-tracing (tracing a path through a maze displayed at the top of the screen in a blank box just below it; experiment 4), and juggling bowling pins (experiment 6). Through their research, the authors isolated the missing element in learning by watching - feeling the actual performance of the task. In the 6th experiment, simply getting a taste of the feelings involved - holding the pins that would be used in juggling without attempting to juggle themselves - changed ratings of skill acquisition.
In six experiments, we explored this hypothesis. First, we tested whether repeatedly watching others increases viewers’ belief that they can perform the skill themselves (Experiment 1). Next, we tested whether these perceptions are mistaken: Mere watching may not translate into better actual performance (Experiments 2–4). Finally, we tested mechanisms. Watching may inflate perceived learning because viewers believe that they have gained sufficient insight from tracking the performer’s actions alone (Experiment 5); conversely, experiencing a “taste” of the performance should attenuate the effect if it is indeed driven by the experiential gap between seeing and doing (Experiment 6).
During the Olympics, when you watch athletes at the top of their game performing tasks almost effortlessly, it's easy to think the tasks aren't as challenging as they actually are. Based on these study results, even having people simply put on a pair of ice skates or stand on a snowboard might be enough for them to realize just how difficult skating can actually be.
Just to help put things into perspective, here's a supercut of awesome stunts followed by a person demonstrating why you should not try them at home: