Close Enough: Living Through Others

A silver lining of social distancing: you may have more time and space to pursue the projects you’ve bookmarked on your web browser. Whether your goal is to build a barn door or to update your makeup routine, online tutorials have made it easier than ever to bring the world into your living room or kitchen or bedroom. But a curious thing can happen when we watch experts doing expert things. This week, we explore the dangers and the delights of vicarious living, with a favorite episode from 2019.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.


From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


VEDANTAM: It used to be that if you wanted to feel what it was like to do something, you had to go out and do it. If your dream was to see the Grand Canyon from a raft, you'd head to the river. If you wanted to gaze up close at the "Mona Lisa," you'd go to Paris. If you wanted to know what it felt like to walk hand in hand with a lover on a moonlit night, you'd have to go out and find a partner. But something in our culture has changed.


VEDANTAM: As we sit on the couch and eat takeout...


EMERIL LAGASSE: We're going to take the green peppercorn mayonnaise...


LAGASSE: ...And we're going to put a little bit...

VEDANTAM: ...We watch kitchen virtuosos whip up gourmet meals from scratch.


GORDON RAMSAY: Turn her over, and look at the color.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And it just makes the house smell like home to me.

VEDANTAM: And then we watch other people eat meals.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So if you are alone on Thanksgiving, I hope you'll have your Thanksgiving dinner with me.

VEDANTAM: I mean that literally. There's a popular genre on YouTube...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK, my mouth's seriously salivating right now.

VEDANTAM: ...Where you just watch other people binge eat.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: OK, I'm starving, literally.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I'm starving, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There's a lot here.




VEDANTAM: It has never been so easy to bring the world into our living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms. And the world that enters our lives has never looked better. You can get the ocean without the seaweed and sunsets without clouds. You can scale a rock face without the fear of a fall. You can experience love...


GARRETT YRIGOYEN: Rebecca Jill Kufrin, my Becca, will you marry me?

VEDANTAM: ...Without the risk of rejection.


YRIGOYEN: Give me that finger.


YRIGOYEN: Oh, my God.

VEDANTAM: The smiles are bigger. The emotions are more spectacular.


KUFRIN: I love you (laughter).

VEDANTAM: The risks and rewards seem greater, even though neither really belong to us.


KUFRIN: We're engaged.

YRIGOYEN: We just got engaged.

VEDANTAM: These other lives we've come to inhabit can seem more beautiful, more exciting, more satisfying than anything in our actual lives. They come in multiple camera angles with all the boring parts spliced out and all the recipe ingredients pre-chopped in those little prep bowls.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I definitely vicariously live through cooking shows.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I catch myself spending hours a week watching climbing videos on Instagram. I've even built my own climbing wall, but I don't use it. Why?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: My husband watches a Navy SEAL talk about discipline and hard work while eating cereal at 11 p.m.


VEDANTAM: Today, we're thinking about how many of us are outsourcing our lives to virtual alter egos. We'll hear stories from listeners about the lure of losing ourselves in the worlds of other people. And we ask what happens when we do this, when we live through the people on our screens and in our headphones? The delights and the dangers of living vicariously, this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.


VEDANTAM: In most areas of his life, John Sharp (ph) is a doer, not a watcher. He is good with his hands and worked for a while as a carpenter's assistant. So a few years ago when he bought his first house, he made sure to get one with a garage so he could build a woodshop. It's tiny, but he's proud of it.

JOHN SHARP: Right now, I've got a nice 14-inch band saw, a 3-horsepower cabinet saw; I've got some Festool products, which are very high end.

VEDANTAM: One of his most important tools, though, is YouTube. He teaches himself everything he needs to know by watching instructional videos. It's his first stop for most of his projects, like the crib he just built for his newborn daughter and the desk he's been working on for his wife.

SHARP: And I've got, you know, probably three or four projects that are just halfway complete or in the queue, if you will.

VEDANTAM: But John's a sixth-grade teacher, and he's usually worn out by the end of the day. And so he's been finding himself spending less time in his shop and more time on his couch just watching those how-to videos.

SHARP: And what I do is I usually use it as a - to decompress after work. So I go home, open up YouTube. You know, like, the other night, I was watching how to build a barn door because I'm also building one in my house. And I thought, oh, I just want to get different ideas.


BRUCE ULRICH: What's going on, everybody? I'm Bruce Ulrich. Welcome back. In today's video, I'm going to show you...

SHARP: And it just becomes, like, this vortex where I'm just like, oh, there's one cool one.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: I love sliding barn doors.

SHARP: And oh, look, there's a different one. I'll watch that one.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: I built this out of an ambrosia maple slab. It's not actually one big slab.

SHARP: And then, you know, it seems like 30 to 45 minutes have passed while I watch videos on, you know, people fixing car engines...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: How to super clean your engine bay so clean that you'll be able to eat off of it.

SHARP: ...Or how to build decks...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: So we're going to start out by putting the ledger on the house. And you can see...

SHARP: ...Or how to renovate houses.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Hey, guys. This is my kitchen. As you can tell...

SHARP: And it's just nonstop. It's just - I mean, I could be on there hours and hours and just - I mean, on a weekday, I'll usually watch on average two hours. But on a weekend, if I don't have a lot going on, you know, I will watch four to five hours easily in a day.

VEDANTAM: At first, it's entertaining.

SHARP: There's definitely a pleasure aspect of it at the beginning.

VEDANTAM: But after 45 minutes or so, that feeling of enjoyment goes away.

SHARP: Then it's just, like, guilt. And it totally switches from pleasure to, you know, why are you sitting here when you could be out there?

VEDANTAM: And as he sits there watching instead of doing, he feels like he's losing something.

SHARP: When I watch the video, what I think I'm losing is I'm losing the ability to gain the skill. I think - I'm tricking my mind to think that, you know, oh, I'm getting that skill. I watched the video. I know how to do it. In reality, that's not true. I can watch a 20-minute video and that person has shown in 20 minutes what probably has taken them days to do. And I am losing the time and the skill of practice for myself. So instead of going into my shop and practicing the skill that I've seen or, you know, this new technique that I'm interested in, you know, I'll just watch another video.


VEDANTAM: Watching experts do expert things is not a new phenomenon. In the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin wrote about his father taking him on walks to see master bricklayers and carpenters at work. He writes in his autobiography it has ever since been a pleasure to see good workmen handle their tools. In 19th-century England, spectators watched surgeons dissect corpses, sometimes accompanied by the music of a flute.


VEDANTAM: And nearly 3,000 years ago, crowds gathered in a stadium to watch people run, jump and perform other athletic feats in the ancient Olympic games.


VEDANTAM: What's different today is that our access to experts has exploded. Never before in human history has it been possible to see so many people display their talents, and never before in human history have so many things counted as talents.


IRENE YEH: I can't remember when I started watching YouTube videos. I think it really started to get popular back when I was in middle school or high school.

VEDANTAM: This is Irene Yeh, a software engineer in Santa Monica, Calif. Irene is busy. She can easily be at work for 10 hours a day. In the morning, she wakes up, grabs something quick for breakfast, and she's out the door in about 40 minutes. At night, she sometimes doesn't get home until 10. After she's taken a quick shower and had her dinner delivered, she often wanders over to YouTube and pulls up a video of someone else's bedtime routine. And for a while, she enters an alternate reality.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Hey, guys. So for today's video, I'm going to be showing you my nighttime routine to destress and relax after a long day at work. I usually start by...

YEH: These videos are people - mostly girls' take of themselves showing how they come home from work.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: So when I come home, the very first thing that I do is I take off my outside shoes and I put on my house shoes.

YEH: They make dinner.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: And I always like to have some sort of high-protein vegan option mixed with a...

YEH: They unwind and go to bed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: I fluff my pillows. I pull back the sheet. I'm not sleeping with the comforter. So I just slept with...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: And I usually get a really good night's sleep after doing this routine. I genuinely sleep like a baby. So I hope that you guys...

VEDANTAM: Irene suspects these women don't actually live like this, but she doesn't mind the artifice. She herself doesn't have the bandwidth right now to make side dishes or exfoliate. She'd rather watch someone else do those things and, for a few minutes, escape into another person's life. It's cheaper. It's simpler. And the emotional results - close enough.

YEH: Honestly, watching these people do all the hard work and make up their perfect life seems like a lot easier for me to get a taste of what this type of life could be while I lounge in my unmade bed and eating my Chinese takeout.


VEDANTAM: Living vicariously makes us feel like we have the things we want even when we can't have them. It's a substitute for the real lives we lead and for the things we lack in those lives. Living through others also fills even deeper needs. It can fill the holes in our psychological lives and serve as a self-esteem pick-me-upper. A listener from Florida shared a story with us along these lines. She requested that we only use her first name to protect her privacy.

NATALIE: OK. I'm Natalie (ph). I live in Miami. Right now, I'm working in human resources.

VEDANTAM: Natalie was 23 years old when she talked to us, and she says she was always on the quiet side. She had a rough time in high school and withdrew into herself.

NATALIE: High school, and I guess all of primary school, you know, before I went to college, was kind of hard for me. I was very quiet, a little - I mean, not a little. I was very insecure.

VEDANTAM: Natalie felt she was overweight. She got bullied. She was interested in music and singing, but her low self-esteem meant she rarely put herself out there.

NATALIE: So, you know, I never really tried to get feedback because I was afraid of getting a bad response.

VEDANTAM: Her family would sometimes notice her drifting off into her own world.

NATALIE: And they would always, you know, say, Natalie, what are you thinking about? Because I would just be staring off into space going on little tangents in my mind.

VEDANTAM: One time, Natalie was with an aunt on a cruise. She was staring off into the distance, lost in thought, for more than an hour.

NATALIE: And she finally asked me, what are you thinking about? And I was thinking about a TV show that I had been watching, just, like, imagining, you know, myself being on the production set or something like that.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Everybody quiet on set. Cut.

VEDANTAM: Over the years, as new forms of technology sprang up around her, Natalie found new solutions to the missing pieces in her life. She takes out her phone and opens Instagram to a photo of a woman with long, brown hair.

NATALIE: She has a long-sleeved top tucked into some high-waisted shorts. She looks like she's in really, really good shape. Her makeup is perfect. And when I see her outfit, it's beautiful. And I know that I would never even think to put those clothing items together. Like, I could never, you know, put an outfit that stylish together.

VEDANTAM: I asked her why she felt that trendy outfits were not for her in real life.

NATALIE: I still, you know, feel like that little girl sometimes, and I don't want to stand out. I don't want to bring too much attention to myself.

VEDANTAM: Other times, Natalie scrolls through Pinterest.

NATALIE: I have, like, folders for each of the rooms in my home. It's almost like I can go into my Pinterest bedroom and see my beautiful bed, and, you know, the sheets are very expensive. So I have one called my first home. I have one called beauty. I have one for my wedding that's coming up. I have one for do-it-yourself projects, which I have never attempted.

VEDANTAM: Natalie drives more than an hour to work each way, five days a week. Along the way, she listens to music - actually listening doesn't quite describe what she does.

NATALIE: And when I listen to music, I'm always the musician. Like, I'll be singing in my head, and I'll even, like, start the song over if I missed my favorite part because I want to, like, see myself singing the best part of the song. So like, I'll, like, make fun of myself that I listen to the same song, like, 50 times just to get it right in my fake performance.

VEDANTAM: Give me an example of the kind of song where that's happened the last time to you.

NATALIE: Oh, my God.


NATALIE: "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John this morning.

VEDANTAM: Natalie imagines herself singing and playing the piano.

NATALIE: I'm a great musician in my head. I play every instrument. I can sing any song.


ELTON JOHN: (Singing) LA lady, seamstress for the band.

VEDANTAM: And there's something else.

NATALIE: This is so embarrassing, but I want somebody else to be watching me. Like, I'll kind of be performing it in my head in front of an audience.


JOHN: (Singing) You'll marry a music man.

NATALIE: In the audience, I see my parent. I'll think, OK, well, I want my best friend there, so then I'll focus on what my best friend would look like in the audience watching me do that.


JOHN: (Singing) Hold me closer, tiny dancer. Count the head lights on the highway. Lay me down in sheets of linen.

VEDANTAM: Of course, you wouldn't be able to spot Natalie the magnetic performer if you passed Natalie the driver on the highway.

NATALIE: No. If you looked at me, I would - it would - I would look completely normal - 10 and 2 on the steering wheel.

VEDANTAM: Another favorite song for her commute is a duet featuring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.

NATALIE: (Singing) Are you tired of trying to fill that void, or do you need more? I'm falling.


LADY GAGA: (Singing) In all the good times, I find myself longing for change. And in the bad times, I fear myself. I'm off the deep end. Watch as I dive in.

NATALIE: I can't hit the notes that she's hitting right now.


LADY GAGA: (Singing) Crash through the surface, where they can't hurt us. We're far from the shallow now - in the shallow, shallow.

VEDANTAM: I asked Natalie what she thought these daydreams were doing for her.

NATALIE: It almost feels like it's filling a void that, you know, I haven't been able to fill ever since, you know, in high school - that was the closest I ever came to being a musician.

VEDANTAM: Natalie's fiancee bought her a guitar after she told him her dream of being a performer. The instrument has mostly sat unused. The daydream versions - the ones on her phone - these versions are so much better. Watching or hearing someone else do things makes her feel good but only for a moment.

NATALIE: Yeah. Well, I mean, when you're watching them do it on TV, it just - it looks so easy, and nobody talks about how hard it is. And, you know, I think that's also why it makes people feel so bad about themselves because, you know, this person on TV, it's so easy for them. You know, why is it so hard for me to get these things done? You know, what's wrong with me?


VEDANTAM: Many of us have experienced what Natalie is feeling - a mix of emotions as we watch others perform difficult tasks with ease. We find it inspiring, and we find it deflating. Coming up - the quirk in our heads that makes watching others so compelling.


VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and you're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN.


BOB ROSS: Hello, I'm Bob Ross. If this is your first time with us, let me extend a personal invitation for you to drag out your little paint brushes and some paints and paint along with us each show. Tell you what, let's get right to it. Let's start out...

VEDANTAM: If you happened to watch public television in the '80s and '90s, you may have come across the painter Bob Ross.


ROSS: And let that knife just float. Let it float right down the side of the mountain. Think about where light would strike.

VEDANTAM: With his gentle voice, kind eyes and halo of brown hair, he made you feel...


ROSS: Zoom - got to make those little noises or it doesn't work right.

VEDANTAM: ...That you could absolutely learn...


ROSS: There.

VEDANTAM: ...How to paint like a master.


ROSS: Just pull. See there, how easy that is, though? Take a little blue - a little tiny bit of blue.

VEDANTAM: Ed O'Brien knows why so many Americans fell in love with Bob Ross and why they felt, after watching him...


ROSS: Just let your imagination take you anywhere you want to go.

VEDANTAM: ...That they could be painters, too.

ED O'BRIEN: You could also hear in that clip just the warmth and encouragement. I'd really - you really are kind of inspired to jump right in and try yourself.

VEDANTAM: Ed is a behavioral scientist at The University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. Along with colleague Michael Kardas, he studies mental simulation - what we think a new experience will feel like.

O'BRIEN: One thing we find is that, you know, instructional videos, other videos you can pull up on YouTube, they teach you something. So they tell you objective details about that experience. But viewers come away thinking that those things have taught them everything, and that discrepancy is at the core of what we're interested in here.

VEDANTAM: Did you and Michael ever experience this yourselves?

O'BRIEN: For sure. I mean, you know, as a consumer myself, you know, at the sports end of things, you can kind of catch yourself screaming at the TV - you know, why did the quarterback not make that throw? - kind of catching myself wondering, it's probably a lot harder in real life than I think about sitting on this couch. So it's certainly experiences like that.

And also for my professional life, you know, when I started as a professor here a few years ago, one major part of the job is teaching, and one thing we do here at The University of Chicago is have new professors sit in on a class. So I spent a whole quarter watching someone else teach before I then, the next quarter, jumped in and taught. And that was also an interesting learning experience for me. You know, after 10 weeks of watching someone, you kind of feel pretty confident. I've invested a lot of time and effort into this.

And then the next quarter rolls around, and I'm the one in the suit now standing in front of the room, and all the eyes are on me. And I quickly realized it's a lot easier to watch somebody do something than it is to actually do it yourself. So also in the professional world, kind of learning through getting a taste of experience, you often realize how much harder things are in practice.

VEDANTAM: It's interesting because as you talk, I'm reminded of the, you know, the very common experience that many of us have watching people who are very good at doing things, which is they do make it look easy. You watch a chef chopping vegetables, or you watch a musician playing the piano, and people who've been doing things for a long time, there's not just a skill and an excellence in what they do, but there's an effortlessness in what they do. And you pick up on that, and you say, all I have to do is sit before the piano and let my fingers relax, and surely, I can play Mozart, too.

O'BRIEN: I find that very interesting, this idea that, you know, making it look easy, we might kind of have a hard time appreciating expertise. We kind of underappreciate what other people are performing, what other kind of experts are doing for us, technicians that fix things for us, athletes that perform for us, right? The best of them, kind of ironically, seem - make it seem like it's the easiest possible performance, from an observer's perspective. So I am really interested in that, in that discrepancy. Do we kind of struggle to fully appreciate the talents of others?

VEDANTAM: Ed wanted to test the hypothesis that watching experts perform a skill, watching them over and over again, improves people's confidence but not their ability. So he came up with some clever experiments.


VEDANTAM: In one of them, he had 400 volunteers watch an instructional video to learn how to do the tablecloth trick.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: Three, two, one, hard - and the crowd goes wild.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: (Laughter) Thank you.

VEDANTAM: It's that magic trick where you pull a tablecloth out from under plates and silverware without disturbing anything on the table. Ed had a lot of videos to choose from on YouTube.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: I've got bowls, plates, cups and saucers. Would you like a cup of coffee? Oh, well, maybe...

VEDANTAM: Many videos talk you through the trick, step by step.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #22: Step 5 - pull the cloth straight down toward the ground. Pull quickly and with confidence so that the tablecloth slides out from under the dishes and cups without...

VEDANTAM: Ed wanted to test the effects of learning through watching. So he found a nearly silent video where a bearded science teacher demonstrates the magic trick for students. The teacher's hands bob up and down as he holds the ends of a tablecloth and concentrates on three bowls and some silverware. Then he pulls the tablecloth - the dishes and silverware barely move. It's all over in less than 15 seconds. Nothing to it, right?

O'BRIEN: I'm interested in that video because, on the surface, it's such a hard task, right? Anybody should recognize that this is a really complicated thing to pull off. It doesn't matter if I just watched a video 20 times. This is really, really hard if I've never tried it before. So we thought this was going to be a conservative test of the hypothesis, that, of course, merely watching a video shouldn't make me better off. I mean, this is something that I'm going to have to practice a bunch of times.

And yet, we find that if you watch this video 20 times, for example, and we specifically ask you, imagine you jump in right now with no other practice than what you've just had, how well would you do on your very first attempt? You jump in and try to pull the tablecloth out. And if you've watched a bunch of times, you think you could pull it off, which I find rather surprising because of how obviously complicated that skill is. I would find it very unlikely that participants can pull it off merely from watching the video many times.

VEDANTAM: And you found in fact that there was in some way sort of a dose-effect relationship. The more times people watched the video - the more they watched it, the more they felt they could do it themselves.

O'BRIEN: Exactly. And what's especially interesting there is we compared that exposure to other kinds of training you could do. So we had people watching videos, and the more that they watched videos, the more confident they became. But this wasn't true for other kinds of training. So we had people spend more time just thinking about the trick or spend more time reflecting on the trick or spending more time reading written instructions about how to do the trick. More time didn't lead people to be more confident. So there seems to be something special about having lots of practice with videos, above and beyond other kinds of practice.

VEDANTAM: In other words, to summarize what you were saying, reading about the skill does not seem to communicate the same transfer of expertise than merely watching someone perform the skill.

O'BRIEN: Exactly. Watching seems intimately connected to our perceptions that we're learning.

VEDANTAM: Now, please tell me that with the tablecloth experiment, you actually had a beginner stand before a tablecloth and actually yank the tablecloth out. Please tell me that actually did happen.

O'BRIEN: I am very regrettably informing you that we did not run that condition, but I think I will after this discussion.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) You'd have to invest a fair amount in new china, I'm guessing.

O'BRIEN: We would. We would. I mean, we did try to bottle this in a more fun way. So not exactly with the dishes, but we have this moonwalk experiment.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: And slide the left leg back and then switch.

O'BRIEN: And so this is the instructional video that we had participants watch a clip of, that was supposedly going to try to train them, this is exactly how you do the moonwalk.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: You're going to slide the left leg back, and you're going to switch weights. So the right leg goes down, you push the left back. When you're pushing the left leg, back keep it flat on the ground. Switch, switch, switch. All right, guys, here we go, with music. Five, six - five, six, seven, go. One, two, three, four, five...

O'BRIEN: But again, the key thing that we're interested in is, you know, once you're actually trying those steps, it turns out there's all sorts of internal reactions and feelings and emotions and nerves that make it harder than it seems. So in this study, what we did was we took this same exact instructional video, and participants either watched it once or watched it 20 times. So again, this is our key manipulation here - getting people lots of exposure to video watching, how does that affect their perceptions of learning, and how does that affect their actual learning?

So we told them to imagine that there was a panel of judges who would then watch them perform the moonwalk once across the screen, and they were going to judge how well they performed the moonwalk. And we asked them to predict, what do you think - what score do you think you're going to get based on your performance? Then what we did was set up a video camera, and participants actually then made an attempt at the moonwalk. These are very, very fun videos to watch. We have a whole battery of these things in our research library.

And truth be told, we showed them to a panel of judges. So the judges had no idea whether this performer had watched the video once or watched the video 20 times. In fact, both sets of participants, whether you watched once or 20 times, didn't do very well. But again, the key insight here, if you watched 20 times, you thought you were going to kind of win that performance, when in fact you performed no better than other participants.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #24: This is the weirdest thing. I have no idea how to do this. I was godawful.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #25: I can keep my balance (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #26: Push, push, push, push.

O'BRIEN: So these are our participants actually trying their moonwalk attempts. And it's great. In some of these videos, as you can hear, they're kind of verbalizing the difficulties of doing this task.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #27: Err-ah (ph). Err-ah. Err-ah.

O'BRIEN: They jump in, and they start to try to emulate what they saw in that video - move the right foot back, move the left foot forward. And it turns out they're literally verbalizing how difficult it is.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #26: Push, push - I don't know if I'm doing it, but this is the best you're going to get from me today.

O'BRIEN: And again, what's especially interesting for us is some of them told us before they made that attempt they're really going to do it well. They're going to nail this attempt. And only in the act of trying do they realize, oh, I guess I didn't learn nearly as much as I thought just from watching that video.

VEDANTAM: When this happens, do you think it changes the way people watch the next videos? Does it possibly - you know, once you learn that your overconfidence was not warranted in one video, do you believe that it's a guard against overconfidence when you watch the next video?

O'BRIEN: I do think it's interesting to consider the possibility that people who jump in, and they're really, really confident, and it turns out they fail miserably, that's a pretty big gap between who you thought you were and who you find out you are. And I suspect that, for some participants, that's motivating, and they realize, OK, I'm going to have to invest a lot more practice into this.

But I wonder if, for a lot of people, that's just demotivating, that the giant gap between perceptions and reality leads them to think, well, I'm not meant for this task after all. I'm never going to pick up this ability, and so they don't practice again. And that's something I'd love to keep researching, but I do think that's a very real possibility from this effect.


VEDANTAM: How do you balance the idea that, in some ways, you know, watching people who are very good at doing something can be a source of inspiration for us? You know, you watch LeBron James playing basketball, and you are motivated to go out and try and play basketball yourself because what he does is beautiful, and it's beautiful to watch. How do you balance that with the fact that when you actually get to the court, having watched LeBron James, you might now be more disinclined to pursue basketball as a sport and in fact just retire to watching LeBron James on the couch?

O'BRIEN: That's right. I mean, I think it's really important for learners and kind of people in general, as we're trying to pick up new skills to have a longer term mindset in place. So I think if you have that mindset kind of in place, it's good to feel inspired by experts that we watch around us. Like I said earlier, it's helpful to kind of inspire action, right? Maybe overconfidence is a good thing in some sense because it gets us off the couch and thinking we can do these things ourselves. I think that is good as long as we realize - right? - first-time failure doesn't mean something longer term about me. It's the fact that merely watching wasn't enough. So now that I'm actually on the playing field, now that I've actually made an attempt and failed, hopefully if people have that long-term mindset in place, they realize that they should stay here and kind of have more real-time experiences - that they're going to be in it for the long haul.



O'BRIEN: We only see LeBron James making that awesome dunk in the championship.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: LeBron for the tie. He got it.


O'BRIEN: Then we think, oh, maybe I could do that too. Maybe I have that inside of me - when in fact so many other things, years of of situations and experience, went in to allowing LeBron James to show that final product.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: As LeBron goes one on one - oh, wow.


VEDANTAM: Ed wanted to know if there was a way to keep people from falling prey to the illusion of overconfidence. So before someone tries to replicate a feat they watch on YouTube, is there a way to remind them that it's more complicated than they think? To test this, Ed had three groups of volunteers watch a short video of someone juggling with bowling pins and told everyone that they would be asked to juggle too. He gave each group different kinds of information about juggling, like the weight and dimensions of a bowling pin. But in one group, he had volunteers actually hold a bowling pin for one minute. They didn't juggle it. They just held it. Would giving people this tiny taste of juggling make them better at predicting how difficult the task would be? The answer was yes. All someone needed was that one minute of direct access into the first step of juggling.

O'BRIEN: That seems to be enough to remind people, oh, yeah, it's not just about holding my hand here, and it's not just about this angle. But when I do those things, there's weight involved. There's kind of these physiological reactions that I'm having as I'm performing this trick that will likely make it a little bit harder than than I feel it is just from watching. So one big take-home from that study is to try to combine instructional video learning with some form of real-world practice. So even if you're just kind of mimicking along at home, holding objects - right? - it may not be the bowling pin in the video, but holding a weighted object as you're watching this thing should presumably make you much better off at appreciating the skill's complexity than if you were just merely watching.

VEDANTAM: Why do you think it is that merely sort of getting people in some ways out of their heads and into their bodies seems to provide some kind of buffer or protection against this overconfidence?

O'BRIEN: Mental simulation just isn't built to incorporate kind of physiological reactions - internal states. Those are states reserved for experience. So unfortunately we spend so much time just in a state of mental simulation. We're constantly just thinking to ourselves, what would happen if I do this? What would happen if I do that - if I moved to this city, if I tried out this skill, right? We're constantly just simulating things and in those simulations, we lack the bottom-up, real-time experience of actually performing, of actually experiencing those events that we can only find when we jump in and try.


VEDANTAM: As Ed's research suggests, watching experts is powerful because we have the sense that some of their expertise rubs off on us. Watching them creates the illusion that we can be them. To put it another way, our screens offer us a mental shortcut. Without having to learn all the difficult things that experts know, we feel that we can play that beautiful piece of music or build that barn door ourselves. Watching others can also provide us with a safety net. When life gets too hard, our screens serve up solace.


VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and you're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. A quick warning before we start the final part of the show - it's about sex.


VEDANTAM: After we posted a call for stories on living through others, a listener named John got in touch to say he wanted to talk.

JOHN: I am 26 years old and living in Cincinnati, Ohio. I'm currently just a utilities technician.

VEDANTAM: John didn't say what he wanted to talk about. He asked that we not share his last name for reasons that will become clear in a moment.


VEDANTAM: John went to high school in a conservative part of Ohio. For most of those years, he didn't tell anyone he was gay.

JOHN: Coming out just wasn't a thing you did in high school.

VEDANTAM: He had dates but not real ones. Mostly he went out with friends who were girls as a way of blending in.

JOHN: It would just be, like, meeting girls on dates, just going to the high school prom or homecoming. That was more the main aim. There wasn't any romantic relation, other than you're just kind of just friends that liked each other enough.

VEDANTAM: John came out to friends in college. He wanted to date, but it was difficult to figure out who was single and who was gay. So he looked for signs.

JOHN: I'll look at something they do. Like, is their hair a certain way? Are their fingers a certain way, or do they say certain things?

VEDANTAM: John thinks back to a guy in his engineering class sophomore year. He had long hair and red infinity tattoos on his wrist. John thought, he's cute. But it didn't go anywhere. He could never figure out if the guy was gay, and he didn't have the courage to start a conversation. He still finds it hard sorting out who's gay, who's straight, who's single. That's why he turned to Grindr, the dating and hookup app. It removed all the guesswork. And at first, Grindr was great.

His senior year, John found a familiar face on Grindr - someone he'd met his freshman year. John suggested that we call him Ryan. It's a pseudonym. Ryan looked like he spent a lot of time in the gym. He had a great body, blond hair and kind, blue eyes. For two weeks, they talked through the app about their lives, about music, politics, sexuality. They clicked.

JOHN: We had a lot to talk about, you know, and maybe we'd talk more about it in person.

VEDANTAM: So John asked him...

JOHN: Hey, could I get your number? Like, your actual, real number, not just, like, you know, your Facebook or your Instagram account.

VEDANTAM: Ryan said yes. They went to the movies. It was "The Martian" with Matt Damon. John was nervous, but he took Ryan's hand and kept it there the rest of the movie. At the end, during the credits, Ryan leaned in and gave John a long, confident kiss. They kept kissing as the credits rolled and the music played.


THE O'JAYS: (Singing) People all over the world - everybody - join hands - join - start a love train...

VEDANTAM: The song was "Love Train."


THE O'JAYS: (Singing) Love train - people all over the world...

VEDANTAM: John hoped this was the start of something real. Then Halloween came. It's the weekend, and John finds out that Ryan has made some last-minute plans with a friend to go to Kent Halloween, the annual party scene downtown around Kent State University. John asks, hey...

JOHN: Maybe - could I come, you know? And he was like, sure, you can come.

VEDANTAM: So he makes a costume really fast.

JOHN: I guess I was a mix between KISS and Adam Lambert.

VEDANTAM: Adam Lambert - that singer who looks like George Michael but with more makeup.

JOHN: And so what I did was I got, like, a wig with a fauxhawk on it. And then I put on a - what? - white makeup and lipstick. So I guess I looked like a goth Adam Lambert. That's the best way I can explain this.

VEDANTAM: And he goes out to the bars by himself to wait for Ryan. He starts to drink, and he starts to text.

JOHN: When are you guys showing up to Kent Halloween? When are you guys showing up to Kent Halloween?

VEDANTAM: Ryan texts back.

JOHN: We'll be there in an hour.

VEDANTAM: An hour goes by - no Ryan. John texts again. Ryan texts back.

JOHN: We'll be there in another 15 minutes.

VEDANTAM: No Ryan - so he asks again.

JOHN: When are you guys showing up to Kent Halloween?

VEDANTAM: Ryan says...

JOHN: We're almost on our way or something like that.

VEDANTAM: It goes on and on. And as John waits and drinks, the night just gets later and later and later.

JOHN: It starts out at 10 o'clock. It's 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 1:30. And I'm just, you know, waiting around at a bar.

VEDANTAM: Ryan and his friends never come.

JOHN: And it turns out that they went somewhere else in town to go hang out. And, like, I wasn't really invited to go around. And that was, like, where things just fizzled out.

VEDANTAM: I mean, you must be really upset and heartbroken when this happened.

JOHN: Only - I think I was. I think I - I think this is my senior year. And I - this is, like, the - like, I was about to graduate. And, you know, I had so much, like, work I had to do. And, like, I really was - I was depressed after this. I was totally devastated.

VEDANTAM: Then it got worse. Ryan broke things off with John through a text. It wasn't even a text with actual words that he had written himself.

JOHN: He sent me, like, some sort of, like - it was a gif.

VEDANTAM: A gif - one of those tiny, trivial video clips that runs on a loop.

JOHN: And it was - basically said, I don't like you. And that was it.

VEDANTAM: That's really painful, isn't it?

JOHN: It is very painful. And I think that's kind of set me down, like, you know, other relationships. It's this kind of - it still stings a lot. And that's why I kind of really don't want - I just don't want to get hurt like that again.


JOHN: (Singing) Maybe I've wasted most of our time.

VEDANTAM: After Ryan, John still held out hope for finding love. He poured out his feelings in songs he had recorded, including this one that he wrote and posted on Facebook not long after Halloween.


JOHN: (Singing) Thinking of you. Nobody loves me.

VEDANTAM: He also went back on Grindr and met other guys. But when he got sick of all the one-night stands, he started to have this dim, sobering thought.

JOHN: You're probably not going to find anybody that you like in particular. Maybe there, perhaps, is nobody out there that's going to really kind of click with me. And I'm - I kind of - I'm satisfied with that.

VEDANTAM: Here's why John is satisfied for now - because about four times a week, he says, he pulls out his phone and escapes into another world...


VEDANTAM: ...Where all the texts are answered, the love is requited and everyone has great abs - where it's clear who's gay and who's not, where people have incredible sex. I'm talking, of course, about porn. And a quick note that this next section might not be appropriate for young children.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Griffin) Yeah, really?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Maybe.

JOHN: It's right there, and you have - like, at the tips of your fingers, it's like, you know, all video...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No one understands me like you do, Griffin (ph).

JOHN: ...On the human record, it feels like.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Griffin) But what about college?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I don't care as long as I have you.

VEDANTAM: John says that for a lot of reasons, porn is easier than dating. For one thing, it's cheaper. It's usually free. And it feels effortless. With a boyfriend, he'd have to figure out, where is this going? How long will this last? Does he really like me? And then the boyfriend would probably start making requests like...

JOHN: Oh, can you also be my bank account and also help me out with chores around the house - all this stuff.

VEDANTAM: It's stress and obligations he doesn't want. And he's got more urgent things to do.

JOHN: Like, I have to, you know, build up my career right now and also pay off my loans and try to figure out, do I want to buy a house or not?

VEDANTAM: And there's something else. Unlike in a bar or on Grindr, the people on the screen can't see you...

JOHN: They don't know who you are.

VEDANTAM: ...Which John feels is a good thing.

JOHN: I am mixed. So a lot of people of color, when you're on a dating app, it is harder to find people just because they can see who you are. They know what you look like. You're not sure if, like, they don't like you because they don't like you as a person, or they don't like you because they just don't find you attractive because of your race. But then, like, versus porn, if you discriminate on porn, it's not as big of an issue.

VEDANTAM: With porn, nobody's dumped through a gif or left alone at a bar looking like goth Adam Lambert. Nobody's heart gets broken.

JOHN: There's no kind of messiness when it comes to feelings and relationships. No feelings hurt - I mean, there probably are feelings hurt with pornography but...

VEDANTAM: John still wants real intimacy. But as he says, he's put that on a shelf.

JOHN: You know, we always have, like, dreams of becoming like rock stars. And so we buy a guitar, and then we play it for a while. And then after things just not working out, we just put that in the case for a little bit. And then hopefully maybe when we get more time, we can go take that thing out and start playing it again. That's kind of how I feel about relationships. It's like I haven't really given up completely. You know, I have so many problems. But, you know, a relationship doesn't have to be one of them right now.

VEDANTAM: When it comes to relationships, John has worked hard to be what he is today - open about his sexuality, willing to start a conversation, ready to take someone's hand in a movie theater. But for now, watching other people be intimate will have to do. Sometimes, though, he does wonder about the bargain he's made - trading real people for virtual ones.

JOHN: I feel I've lost something, but I just can't name what I've lost when I do watch porn. There's something it feels like you've lost when you've kind of committed to using it as a substitute than actually, you know, being in a relationship. I think it's - a lot of it is that - the empathy of it. There's no empathy in that transaction when you're on a pay-for site or anything. It's not real.


VEDANTAM: All of us are recruits in an extraordinary uncontrolled experiment. No one has asked you if you want to be part of this experiment, and it's very hard to extricate yourself from it. As entertainment and fantasy and the feats of experts flow into our brains through our screens and headphones, it's easier and easier to live through other people. There is no simple answer to whether vicarious living is good or bad. Watching experts can inspire. It can also demotivate. Maybe the real question is not whether vicarious living is good or bad for you. It's whether you are actively choosing it. Being deliberate about when a screen becomes a replacement for your life means that when the time is right you get to turn off that screen.


VEDANTAM: This week's episode was produced by Laura Kwerel and edited by Tara Boyle and Jenny Schmidt. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, Cat Schuknecht and Lushik Wahba. Our unsung hero this week is Veronica Zaragovia (ph), who recorded our interview with Natalie, our listener from Florida. It was a hot day, and Natalie spoke to us from her car. We asked them to turn off the air conditioning so that the hiss wouldn't come through the recording. We would chat for a few minutes, and then they'd pause to turn on the air conditioning and cool things down. Thank you, Veronica, for sweating the small stuff and helping our show sound great. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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