Is vicarious learning saving us from pandemic boredom?

In 1962, way before the Internet would make it possible to watch other people cooking, playing, reorganizing their closets or remodelling their houses, Albert Bandura introduced the term vicarious learning (known today as observational learning) to refer to the process of acquiring new information, skills or behavior through watching the performance of others, either directly or through videos (1). As technology evolved throughout the years, though, the learning part seems to have waned in favor of the mere observation.

Cooking shows and videos are a great example. Initially conceived to help the average home cook learn some basic skills, they have actually contributed to keep us away from the kitchen, either because their plots have become so complex that they’re sometimes not even about the food anymore, or because they are specifically designed to make us feel like we’re the ones doing the work. Tasty, the self-proclaimed world’s largest food network, publishes speeded-up recipes featuring no faces and hands free of any distinguishing marks or jewellery because their research team has found that “viewers may be ‘triggered’ by the sight of a bracelet because we don’t want to be disabused of the impression that it’s our own hands that are chopping those onions so speedily” (2).

Learning how to play video games has also been losing ground in favor of watching others play them. In 2018, YouTube viewers watched over 50 billion hours of gaming videos, with 48% of viewers reporting that they spent more time watching than playing, and some of them admitting that it frees them from having to invest time on developing their skills (3). This trend does not only concern teenagers or adults making (more or less conscious) decisions about how to hone their competencies. A YouTube channel consisting of a little boy opening toys and playing with them has over 24 million subscribers.

These all seemed to be grim prospects for our future, but after a month of home confinement, and with the ever-growing repository of online resources made available by artists, museums and world-famous Chefs, observational learning might be on the rise. Driven by the need to stay active or out of mere boredom, people seem to be using their free time to develop new skills — whether that means starting a complex meal from scratch, tackling some ninja knitting techniques or finally facing the fear of drawing.

May this be a time for learning from each other. To try something new. To fail. To try again. To laugh from our mistakes. To share our progresses. Let us, for once, use the technology in our favour, shall we?

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