Inflate feelings of mastery

Ease unskilled individuals into a task with some quick wins. Enhancing their feelings of “illusive superiority” will make them more likely to continue when the stakes are higher.


  • Any activity that requires skill and practice but which has an apparently simple set of rules can create feelings of illusive superiority. Online, sites exist to separate unskilled individuals from their money in fields as diverse as playing poker, trading derivatives, or correctly assessing the value of auction items.


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.”
In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger backed up Russell’s assertion with some seminal research in this field (which, incidentally, won them an Ig Nobel prize in Psychology), showing that indeed those individuals who performed worst on a series of skill tests thought they had performed much better than they really had. Test participants who had performed well had a tendency to believe they had performed comparatively poorly. Even after showing test participants their own results, while the individuals who had scored well could correctly estimate their own ranking, those who scored in the 12th percentile (that’s pretty bad) still placed themselves above average.

This behavior – unskilled individuals suffering from illusive superiority while skilled individuals suffer from illusive inferiority – is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

How to increase feelings of mastery

  • Give people a set of relatively simple-looking rules to follow, and a sandboxed area to practice in. This way, they’ll soon feel like they understand the principles of the task they are performing and so feel qualified to go and play with the “big boys.”
  • Provide social proof that it’s possible to win by encouraging customers to boast about their successes on a message board or other special area of the site.
  • Keep ignorant people ignorant. In other words, don’t make people aware of what they don’t know. That way they will continue to overestimate their competence.
  • Reward people early with “quick wins” so that they feel they’re getting the hang of the task.
  • Make it possible to play with small levels of investment, so that initial losses don’t feel too discouraging.
  • Convince people that it may take time before they truly feel like they understand the process, but that they are doing great anyway.