The Yerkes-Dodson law posits that there’s an optimal level of arousal for peak performance on any task.
According to Yerkes and Dodson, performance improves with increased arousal up to that optimal point, but further arousal can lead to diminished performance.
As an example of the Yerkes-Dodson Law, we can all relate to instances where a deadline can motivate us to work hard to reach it (this is an optimal stimulus supporting task performance), but if the deadline is too close or overwhelming, we might feel it’s unattainable and become demotivated to work (this is an overwhelming stimulus that’s decreasing task performance).
The Yerkes-Dodson Law in a Graph
Below is what Tiegen (1994) refers to as the Hebb/Yerkes-Dodson hybrid.
It depicts the relationship between arousal and performance on simple and difficult tasks.
In this graph, another dimension is added – task difficulty:
- High levels of arousal improve performance on simple tasks.
- Low levels of arousal improve performance on difficult tasks.
Yerkes Dodson Law Examples
- In Test Performance: Some students suffer from test anxiety. Because they are already at a high level of arousal and nervousness, the teacher tries to help them relax before distributing a challenging exam.
- In Athletic Training: Coaches often find that some athletes perform best under the spotlight, thriving with the pressure of a crowd, while others may crumble. By adjusting training regimens, they can simulate various levels of stress, helping athletes find their optimal arousal level for peak performance.
- Working Against Tight Deadlines: For people that might feel a little bored in their job, they sometimes need a little stress to make them motivated. This is why working against a tight deadline can be very beneficial to help them get the job done.
- In the Classroom: Teachers can incorporate the Yerkes-Dodson law by making sure their students are neither too bored to be motivated or not over-stressed to feel intimidated. Finding the right balance between the level of arousal and the task is a sign of a perceptive and skilled teacher.
- In Leadership Skills: Leaders know the difference between being overworked and underperforming because of not being challenged. So, they know who among their staff can handle tougher assignments and who needs to be given a lighter workload.
- In Stress Management: Being bored in one’s everyday life can reduce motivation and make life seem dull. On the other hand, having too many pressures can lead to burnout and depression. Each individual knows where their optimal place on the Yerkes-Dodson curve is at.
- Matching Personality with Job Demands: There are some occupations which are highly stressful. Failing can result in the loss of life or the loss of substantial amounts of money. This is why there needs to be a good match between a person’s baseline level of arousal and the demands of the job. Put someone that gets nervous easily in a pressure-packed position and trouble is inevitable.
- Easing in to a New Job: Most HR directors know better than to toss a new employee into the thick of things right away. If they’re wise, they will start the new employee out doing simple tasks that are not crucial. As the employee performs sufficiently well, then they can be given more challenging tasks.
- Performing in a Musical Recital: If it is the first time a musician is playing in front of an audience, they will feel extremely anxious. So, they will take a few deep breaths beforehand to relax and be able to concentrate. However, for an experienced pro, they have played in front of audiences for years. It’s almost a little boring. So, they might need to get themselves a little hyped-up to feel motivated and focused.
- Ramping up the Pressure: A teacher of gifted students knows that they can get bored easily. But, they still have to accomplish certain assignments as part of the school’s curriculum. So, to make things more interesting, she brings in a timer. She sets the timer for a short interval and tells the students they must finish before time expires.
- Preparing for Public Speaking: Before giving a presentation, some speakers may feel excessively nervous, leading them to use techniques like visualization or deep breathing to calm down. Conversely, seasoned speakers might energize themselves with a quick workout or listening to upbeat music to prevent complacency.
- Ace Pilots: Ace pilots are usually very bright individuals. They process information rapidly and can multi-task in ways that are surprisingly efficient. Their “need for speed” is a symptom of not feeling easily challenged. This is why they are often adrenaline junkies. Because they get bored easily, they prefer to be engaged in highly stimulating activities.
- In Nursing: Working in the Emergency Room can be very stressful. It’s a job that is unpredictable and at times can seem overwhelming. This is why some of the best nurses in the ER have a very moderate temperament. Their baseline level of arousal is low, and this makes it easier for them to handle high-pressure situations.
- Music in the Workplace: The line supervisor of a busy factory has noticed that at some times in the day the staff can slow down and mistakes increase. To combat this lull, he plays music with an upbeat tempo over the intercom to help his workers be more alert and give them a boost of energy.
- During Creative Processes: Artists, whether they’re painters, writers, or musicians, often have rituals to get into the “zone.” For some, a quiet, serene environment is crucial to tap into their creativity, while others may require external stimuli like background noise or a change in environment to kickstart their imagination.
The Original Yerkes-Dodson Studies
Yerkes and Dodson conducted experiments that involved varying the amount of electrical shock delivered to mice and then assessing their ability to learn which of two boxes to enter (referred to as a learning discrimination task).
Across three experiments, the researchers discovered that when the level of shock increased, the number of trials it took for the mice to learn decreased, suggesting that arousal led to better task performance.
But, when the level of shock reached a certain higher level, the number of trials it took to learn increased. So – there’s a limit!
An online version of the original study can be found here.
Criticisms of Yerkes Dodson Law
There are several robust criticisms of the research from which the Yerkes-Dodson law was founded (Broadhurst, 1957; Brown, 1965; Brehmer, 1980; Tiegen, 1994).
These criticisms are primarily aimed at the original Yerkes-Dodson study:
- Flaws in the Original Study: The first criticism of the original research was that it involved testing only a few mice. For instance, in one study, there were only four mice in each condition while in another there were only two.
- Internal Consistency Error: The shock levels across the experiments did not contain consistent operational definitions. Different studies involved meaningfully different levels of shock, but all defined as “high”.
- Lack of Statistical Analysis: Although the data were presented graphically, there were no statistical analyses performed to determine statistical significance.
- Definition of Arousal: The law is described today as a law regarding motivation based on arousal. The original study did not involve “arousal” as we define it today. The original study involved punishment in the form of electric shock, which is not exactly the same.
However, to be fair, each of these criticisms are based on a more modern understanding of experimental design and statistical analyses. The standards with which we evaluate research today involve procedures and techniques that simply did not exist in psychology in 1908.
Revisions of the Yerkes-Dodson Law
As Tiegen (1994) explains in detail, the “law” has undergone substantial transformation since that first 1908 study.
For a variety of reasons, it has taken on a life of its own:
“…developments in the psychology of learning occurred which were to change and broaden the Yerkes-Dodson law into a far more pervasive principle than its originators could have ever imagined” (p. 530).
The field altered its acceptance of punishment as a principle of learning and there were changes in the concepts of learning and motivation.
This led to a reinterpretation of the Yerkes-Dodson law as being a law about motivation and performance.
In various discussions, it went through additional subtle changes as authors ignored some of the original terminology used by Yerkes and Dodson and sometimes even inaccurately described the original study.
Two key contributions were provided below:
- Broadhurst (1957): Broadhurst replicated the original 1908 study utilizing better methodology and increased the number of subjects in each condition to 10.
- Hebb (1955): The concept of arousal was introduced and research by Hebb (1955) presented an inverted U-shaped curve to depict the relationship between arousal and performance.
- Arousal Theory of Motivation: The arousal theory of motivation argues that people are highly motivated to maintain an optimal level of arousal at all times.
From there onward, introductory textbooks began including the Yerkes-Dodson law accompanied by the inverted U graph, described by Tiegen (1994) as the “Hebb/Yerkes-Dodson hybrid” (which was demonstrated above).
Today, the concept has been extended and applied to several areas, from managerial psychology (Corbett, 2015) to sports psychology (Foster, 1996).
As Tiegen (1994) characterizes the situation, the law has been mischaracterized in a variety of contexts, due to either historical ignorance or conceptual vagueness.
The law has been applied to a wide range of subject areas that stretch the meaning of the original notion to a surprising degree: “How can strength of stimulus, motivation, anxiety and stress be considered interchangeable concepts?” (Tiegen, 1994, p. 540).
Applications of the Yerkes Dodson Law
Despite the fact that the Yerkes-Dodson law has so many shortcomings and is often misrepresented, it has still been applied in several areas of study.
1. In Memory
Diamond et al. (2007) examined how strong emotional learning experiences affect neuro-mechanisms in the hippocampus and amygdala.
The authors propose a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between arousal and memory processing that integrates the Yerkes-Dodson law.
Similarly, Mair et al. (2011) review several studies regarding arousal and memory. Drugs and electrical deep brain stimulation (DBS) have been found to enhance or impair working memory, depending on the level of application.
Lower levels enhance and stronger levels impair. In addition to alternative explanations, the authors suggest that these studies are consistent with the Yerkes-Dodson law.
2. Managerial Psychology
Le Fevre et al. (2003) discuss how the misunderstanding of the Yerkes-Dodson law, along with the outdated nature of Selye’s (1946) original formulation of stress, have led to the inappropriate management of stress in the workplace.
Corbett (2015) concludes:
“Analysis reveals that the YDL has no basis in empirical fact but continues to inform managerial practices which seek to increase or maintain, rather than minimise, levels of stress in the workplace as a means to enhance employee performance” (p. 741).
Even though the faults of the Yerkes-Dodson law are well-known by some, the law still appears in various sources as being a valuable tool in everyday management practices (e.g., Mellifont et al, 2016; Karmakar, 2017).
3. Sports Psychology
The relationship between arousal and performance has a direct application to sport. It is commonly referenced in textbooks and research (e.g., Cox, 2012).
One approach in athletic training is to help athletes create the best level of arousal/motivation for each situation they encounter during competition. For instance, teaching athletes how to relax under high-stakes conditions can improve performance.
Other research has integrated technology in training. For example, Stinson and Bowman (2014) used a high-fidelity VR system to create anxiety-inducing environments for the resilience-training of athletes to prepare them for real-world, high-pressure competitive scenarios.
The study involved a virtual soccer goalkeeping simulation at the Virginia Tech Visionarium VisCube so participants could practice defending against simulated penalty kicks using their own bodies.
The results were interpreted, in part, by incorporating the Yerkes-Dodson law of arousal as it pertains to athletic performance.
The Yerkes-Dodson law describes the relationship between arousal and performance. Theoretically, simple tasks are best accomplished with higher levels of arousal, while difficult tasks are best performed under conditions of lower arousal.
Since the original study was conducted in 1908, the law has undergone several changes and is sometimes misinterpreted today. Despite the methodological and conceptual issues of the original study, it still has applications in modern psychology.
The law has been used to understand how arousal affects the neurochemical processes involved in memory, how athletes can be trained to perform under pressure, and ways managers can improve employee productivity.
Brehmer, B. (1980). In one word: Not from experience. Acta Psychologica, 45(1-3), 223-241. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/0001-6918(80)90034-7
Broadhurst, P. L. (1957). Emotionality and the Yerkes-Dodson law. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54(5), 345. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/h0049114
Brown, W. P. (1965). The Yerkes-Dodson law repealed. Psychological Reports, 17(2), 663-666. doi: https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.1918.104.22.1683
Corbett, M. (2015). From law to folklore: Work stress and the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 30(6), 741-752. doi: https://doi.org/10.1108/JMP-03-2013-0085
Cox, R. H. (2102). Sport psychology: Concepts and applications (7th Ed.). McGraw-Hill.
Diamond, D. M., Campbell, A. M., Park, C. R., Halonen, J., & Zoladz, P. R. (2007). The temporal dynamics model of emotional memory processing: A synthesis on the neurobiological basis of stress-induced amnesia, flashbulb and traumatic memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson law. Neural Plasticity, 2007. doi: https://doi.org/10.1155/2007/60803
Dodson, J. D. (1915). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation in the kitten. Journal of Animal Behavior, 5(4), 330. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/h0073415
Foster, C. (1996). Sport psychology: Concepts and applications. The Sport Psychologist, 10(2), 207-209.
Hebb, D. O. (1955). Drives and the CNS (conceptual nervous system). Psychological Review, 62(4), 243.
Karmakar, R. (2017). Guidelines for stress management. Psychology and Behavioral Science International Journal, 3(2), 10-19080.
Le Fevre, M., Matheny, J., & Kolt, G. S. (2003). Eustress, distress, and interpretation in occupational stress. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18(7), 726-744.
Mair, R. G., Onos, K. D., & Hembrook, J. R. (2011). Cognitive activation by central thalamic stimulation: The Yerkes-Dodson law revisited. Dose-Response, 9(3).
Mellifont, D., Smith-Merry, J., & Scanlan, J. N. (2016). Pitching a Yerkes–Dodson curve ball?: A study exploring enhanced workplace performance for individuals with anxiety disorders. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 31(2), 71-86.
Selye, H. (1946). The general adaptation syndrome and the diseases of adaptation. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology, 6(2), 117-230.
Stinson, C., & Bowman, D. A. (2014). Feasibility of training athletes for high-pressure situations using virtual reality. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, 20(4), 606-615.
Teigen, K. H. (1994). Yerkes-Dodson: A law for all seasons. Theory & Psychology, 4(4), 525-547.
Winton, W. M. (1987). Do introductory textbooks present the Yerkes-Dodson Law correctly? American Psychologist, 42(2), 202.
Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482