Updated on 10.08.09

Mirror Neurons: Why Watching Others Succeed Won’t Help You Succeed

Trent Hamm

When I first started becoming interested in cooking, I went through a short period where I watched a lot of programming on Food Network. The idea behind it – in my own mind – is that I could learn about cooking through watching and then I could immediately apply it in the kitchen.

What I found is that I would absorb a few good ideas or techniques, but I would have absolutely no desire to go out in the kitchen and actually employ these new ideas and techniques. Instead, I always had this vague sense that I had somehow already accomplished the cooking effort for the day, so instead I would prepare something incredibly easy and call it good enough.

My only success, in fact, came when I would actually be in the kitchen preparing the meal at the same time as the hosts. I would do this by using the DVR, pausing when I needed to. If I didn’t do that, I usually wouldn’t bother. Not always – there were rare exceptions to this – but usually.

What I found instead is that if I actually wanted to prepare a meal in the kitchen, I was a lot better off reading about the technique and visualizing myself doing it. If I had no idea, I could always watch a YouTube video, but usually a passage from a technique-heavy cookbook like Joy of Cooking and some imagination would do the trick.

I never really thought about this again until recently, when I had a long chat with a guy who has a side business revolving around home repair and remodeling. He related a very similar experience to my own. Whenever he’d catch a show or two of a program like This Old House, his motivation to actually get out and do something went straight downhill.

What do these two experiences have in common? After watching someone else accomplish something, we felt much less compelled to go out and accomplish the same thing ourselves and, often, felt a subtle sense of having actually accomplished something merely by watching someone else do it.

There’s a biological explanation for this: mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are neurons (i.e., pieces of the brain) that fire both when a person acts and when a person observes the same action performed by another. In other words, parts of our brain respond exactly the same when we do something or when we watch someone else do that same exact thing. Like, for example, preparing a meal or watching Paula Deen prepare one, or do a home repair project or watch Bob Vila do that same project.

To put it simply, we often get the same feeling from watching someone else do something that we would get from doing things ourselves.

When you think about it this way, it pops up time and time again in our lives. We feel happy when we read about someone else experiencing happiness and sad when they experience sadness. We feel a sense of accomplishment and joy when the hero overcomes adversity. We feel fear when the monster is sneaking up behind the hero on screen, even though there’s no monster in the room with us.

And, quite often, those emotional rushes are enough to fulfill us, reducing our drive to actually accomplish things.

Let me put it as simply as I can. If you want to succeed, do. If you want to follow, watch.

After a period of watching a lot of Food Network shows, I began to realize that I wasn’t actually becoming a better cook or, frankly, cooking much of anything at all. Instead, I began to read a lot more about cooking, often in the kitchen with the book open in front of me as I mixed something up and threw it in the oven.

The same phenomenon repeated itself when I dug deep into my own personal finance recovery. I would read lots of tips and often feel a strong sense that my finances were already in better shape because I had read it. It was only by continually pushing myself that I was able to actually improve my financial life, not just rely on mirror neurons to give me a sense that it was improving.

Watching and reading about someone else’s success is a great starting point for your own success. But that’s all it is, a starting point. It’s up to you to take the next step and actually do something. Don’t trick yourself into a false sense of accomplishment just because you watched someone else succeed with these tactics.

What are you going to do today?

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  1. This is a very interesting article, a topic I’d never heard of before but now reading it, it makes absolute sense and I,too, can relate this in my own life.

    When I feel down about my financial situation, or my motivation to stay focused begins to dwindle, I’ll grab Dave Ramsey’s book and read a chapter. It will make me feel better about my situation, even though I hadn’t really done anything differently. In that moment, though, I feel like I am doing something by reading even though nothing has changed, and it affects the way I feel.

    Another example would be my recent skydiving adventure. Before going myself, I watched video after video of people on YouTube skydiving. Just watching them brought a huge rush of adrenaline. It was a strange feeling because I was feeling exactly the same feeling they were just sitting on my couch. The funny thing is, after having done it & watching the videos again, I still felt the same adrenaline rush, only this time I could actually relate it to my own experience, which made it more “enjoyable”.

    I’m not sure that I’ve ever been directly unmotivated by watching someone accomplish something, of course, maybe I’ve just never given it any consideration. I’ll start paying attention. Great article!

  2. Johanna says:

    Food Network shows aren’t intended to teach you how to cook, any more than televised NFL games are intended to teach you how to play football. They’re not even intended to inspire you to cook. They’re intended to inspire you to watch more Food Network shows. If you realize that, it makes a whole lot more sense.

  3. J Brown says:

    I tend to learn a lot from the home improvement and DIY shows. I use it as additional information and part of the research. I often make notes of their ideas and methods for me to re-use later. I do the same when it comes to youtube. I learn by watching and then attempt to make it happen. Often, I add my own twist later in the form of lessons learned. I did this for laying my laminate flooring, building a deck, painting, laying tile and planting flowers.

  4. Dave M says:

    Steven – Your skydiving explanation parallels why I like to watch shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Mr. Frosted Hair. The fancy-complex-food shows like Iron Chef are entertaining, sure, but I’ve *made* great burgers at home. So when Guy goes some place where a half pound burger comes with 23 different crazy toppings it’s easier to get excited about it. Whenever you can watch someone and KNOW how good it’s going to taste, that’s cool.

    Johanna – great parallel to football as well.

    (Trent – I will now stop hijacking this comment thread!)

  5. leigh says:

    this is why DOING is a very important part of learning. it’s important to have a guru- someone to emulate, preferably who is better/more experienced at your chosen skill than you are- but it’s also important to put into practice the things you’ve observed from your guru.

    there is a far greater reward in being the one who experiences the success, the joy, etc.

  6. Manshu says:

    I had never thought of it before but now that I think of it there are some parallels. Especially when my favorite sports team wins and I don’t feel like doing anything else because I am happy that at least one good thing happened in the day.

  7. dangermom says:

    I don’t watch cooking or HGTV shows, stuff like that. What I do watch is cleaning shows–“How clean is your house?” kind of stuff. And I find that they are very motivating for me; I use them as inspiration. I’ll watch one and then go spend the next 2 hours scrubbing. I think it might be because I’m always trying to overcome my own messiness, and these shows serve as a dire warning of what could happen to me if I don’t go clean something right now. I live in fear of waking up one day and realizing that I live in a trash heap of my own making.

  8. shris says:

    OMG this is just the sense I was getting the last few days..reading about other people exercising and losing weight!

    I kept having this feeling that it was just easier reading about other people working hard and achieving their goals.. :) Of course, exercise and weight loss *are* hard to do, but there’s something about not wanting to do something that’s already been done..

    Very strange.

    Right now I am using DIY shows to kinda scratch my itch to fix up the house. Right now we’re helping my brother-in-law fix up his (had his house moved to a new location and is gutting it). We have lots of stuff we want to do to ours, but some of it has to wait til we save more money. Some we could be doing now but have to wait for BIL’s house stuff to be done so we have our time back.

    I use DIY shows to learn techniques for doing stuff, though, that I *do* practice in my own house. Hanging drywall, mud and tape, setting tile, hanging cabinets, etc. are all things I learned from TV shows and later used in my own house. But for now, I can pretend watching the shows is ‘research’ while we deliberately put off the doing part. Keeps me from getting too dissatisfied.


  9. Deborah says:

    I wonder if people who are especially empathetic are people who have more mirror neuron activity?

  10. Michelle says:

    I wonder what implications this has for when an individual is watching a great deal of violent programming.

  11. Robin Crickman says:

    Have you discovered a new diet craze? Just watch
    a video of someone eating a wonderful large meal
    and then feeling completely satisfied and lose
    all interest in eating yourself? Would it work?
    If so, it sure would be easier than other approaches.

  12. Todd says:

    For some reason this post really resonated with me. It seems like some people who no longer take much time to exercise or play sports get the illusion of being active by watching sports on television. In the same way that people with the most boring lives seem to crave the drama of soap operas. It’s as if they’ve DONE something by experiencing it vicariously, but ultimately they DO very little. Interesting idea, Trent. I’m not sure this is always a bad thing, though. A 70-year-old should probably stick to watching football on television!

  13. Jeremy says:

    johanna hit the food network right on the head. The more a person watches Food Network, the less they seem to know or care about food and cooking.

  14. steve says:

    I recently attended a day long equipment maintenance workshop for my family business. While I learned a lot by listening to the factory rep explain exactly how the equipment was supposed to work from startup on to shutdown, and from his diagnostic tips, after complimenting him and the other factory reps for their presentation, I made a comment that this was a great presentation and I learned a lot, but I know that no matter how much you learn from listening to someone else, I’ll only really know the equipment once I’ve pulled it apart and put it back together myself”.

    Again, as Trent says, doing is the way to mastery. Other people’s experience can be learned from, but you have to balance it with your own activity.

  15. brad says:

    on the converse, maybe watching someone not complete a task can galvanize you into action. i watched a ‘hoarders’ episode on a and e and at the end the guy still hadnt cleaned up his place. i had to shut off the tv right there and tidy up my room because i was certain if i didnt i would turn into a hoarder the very next day.

  16. April says:

    “The people who watch the Food Network are the ones with a gallon of soda and a bag of Cheetos going, ‘oh, I could make that.’”–Anthony Bourdain

    I’m with Johanna and Jeremy. I had the displeasure to watch the FN for a few hours last year, and what a waste of time. On the other hand, the PBS chefs are amazing. I DO get up off the couch and go make the meal I’ve just watched on those shows. I have learned so much about cooking from PBS shows like Lidia’s Italy, Rick Bayless, Simply Ming, and Jacques Pepin.

  17. tentaculistic says:

    Hunh, interesting article and comments, I can definitely see that point!

    I have to say that I don’t have either Food Network or any of those DIY show channels, but 2 weekends ago I stayed at a place with those channels. I watched Food Network for several hours, and learned several tips that I went back and used the following week (From Bobby Flay’s Grill It! – a marinade can be super simple and still great; and brush food with canola oil before grilling so it won’t stick to the grill). But there were several other shows that I just didn’t learn from, because either I thought the food wasn’t very healthy or didn’t look good, or I just couldn’t follow the steps as they worked. Oh, and maybe 4 years ago I saw a DIY show that painted an awesome design on a porch floor, and I’m now seriously considering doing it… wish I could remember more details :)

    So I agree for the most part about the vicarious living through t.v., but I also think we can tuck ideas away in our heads about how to do things.

  18. Lisa says:

    This reminded me of the Clay Pots story that Trent shared once.(www.thesimpledollar.com/2009/03/page/7/).

  19. Hiroyuki Sakai says:

    The Japanese Iron Chef episodes were superb drama and cuisine. Fool Network will rue the day they staged a sham contest of the Japanese Iron Chefs against their American cook-alikes, with a panel of judges brought up on Beef-a-Roni and Fruity Pebbles.

    Not to mention American chefs turning out dishes such as truffle-saffron corn dogs and puree of Kobe beef and french fry sloppy Joe Ice Cream.

    In the end, “Iron Chef America” is just a platform for the ch-elebrities to see their own brand of Ginsu Knives. Billy Mays is dead. Long live Billy Mays.

  20. Kevin M says:

    Johanna, Jeremy and April obviously haven’t watched much “Good Eats”.

  21. Matt says:

    If you want to try cooking while the program is on, try looking for gordon ramsey’s cookalong (was live), there are a half dozen episodes that can be found on youtube where the point is to cook along with him, everything done in real time.

  22. stella says:

    seriously, this wholesale coming down on the food network. Really. It is what it is and all the shows are not alike. Some are educational, some are merely entertaining. Some are just funny.

    The people I know who watch don’t fall into the “sitting on the sofa with cheetohs” category of the ever-critical Anthony Bourdain (who made a career by criticizing and nothing else. Highly constructive!)

    Most of them are great cooks, some self-taught. They watch more out of curiosity and often the shows are on as they are in their kitchens cooking something else entirely.

    Other folks watch to get inspired and to get ideas for actual meals they want to make for the family and friends.

    You can also learn a lot about food itself on some of the shows.

    yea, some are a waste of time. But that applies to almost anything.

    A lot of people who would NEVER learn about healthy cooking options, or about low-cost meals, or other relevant and useful stuff, unless they watched some of these shows.

    If you’re going to cook, you’re going to cook. It’s got nothing to do with what you watch. Unless, of course, you only want to vicariously “cook.” (It’s like the folks who watch travel shows. They rarely travel. People who travel don’t watch TV, let alone travel shows!)

    As for DIY shows. Again, some shows are exactly what you need to say: Hey, I can do that or, more often: Oh boy. I can’t do that (and you end up saving LOTS of money that way with unfinished projects that should never have been started).

    We have learned things that have helped us to better select and supervise home improvement vendors and, more importantly, learned about things that help us make more cost-efficient and productive choices in home repair, home remodeling and purchasing.

    There is good information out there. Whether you choose to use it or act on it, that’s up to you. Don’t blame the shows because you’re lazy. It’s not their job to get you off your ass to cook or clean or fix something.

  23. Lucy says:

    This reminds me of the “Reading Deprivation” week in the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. In order to jumpstart your creativity, you’re supposed to stop reading about your artform, or reading _anything_ for a whole week.

    I guess it helps to stop getting that fake sense of satisfaction.

    I wonder how Trent would cope with a week of reading deprivation? I guess he doesn’t need it anyway. Personally I made it only two days and then I crumbled.

  24. Shevy says:

    Do you have to swear like Ramsay does if you cook along with his show? We’ve been watching Hell’s Kitchen because the winner will be working at Whistler when the Olympics come here in Feb 2010 and I’ve worked with longshoremen who cursed less. It’s hard to respect someone who can’t interact with others in a civil manner.

    As for this mirror neuron theory, it’s interesting, but what about people who are visual learners? Different people are wired differently. Some people find doing at the same time very distracting.

  25. Honey says:

    I loooooove Gordon Ramsay. Someday, I want to spend a week cussing as much as he does.

    But then, I watch his shows so much, perhaps I feel as if I’ve already achieved it. And then again, I probably DID cuss that much in college…

  26. Heidi says:

    Thank you for finally giving me an explanation for why workout videos/shows gave me a sense of accomplishment when I hadn’t actually gotten off of my rear end!

  27. Elijah says:

    I think that there’s a difference between watching for specific content and watching for entertainment. Watching to learn a specific thing teaches you content, while watching for entertainment makes you feel like you’ve performed the content without actually needing to expend the time, energy and effort in doing so.

  28. Ariel says:

    As I’m in a 600 level neuroscience course this semester, your reference to mirror neurons caught my attention. Your use of the science is cute, but not founded in fact- the isn’t any research backing up your claim that the similar feelings of accomplishment after either completing a task or watching another complete it are at all related to mirror neurons. If you want to present this as an potential explanation, be my guest; we are all entitled to opinions. It’s possible that mirror neurons do have something to do with that accomplished feeling. The way you phrased it as fact, though (“there’s a biological explanation for this: mirror neurons”) is not an appropriate representation of the existing science.

    I love what you say about finances, motivation, etc, and thought this was an interesting post, but you lose credibility when you misrepresent science to try to make your posts more interesting.

  29. mellen says:

    Reading the information on the link attached, there does seem to be something to the theory that Trent mentions (Ariel’s 600 level knowledge aside), enough so that I’m interested to learn more about it. It would offer a reasonable explanation as to why so many people find it satisfying to sit on a couch and watch tv and play video games; all the satisfaction, none of the sweat or fatigue. I only got up to the 400-500 level in bio-medical engineering but I’m fascinated by the research that is being done; guess that extra year makes a big difference. Trent, feel free to throw science in whenever you get the chance, I love links to stuff like this; whether it proves true or not, I can tell you one thing, we learn by asking questions not by watching others ask them or listening to someone tell us about the questions that already have answers…

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