What Is the Yerkes-Dodson Law?

A closer look at the relationship between arousal levels and performance

Yerkes-Dodson law suggests a relationship between arousal and performance.
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Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that elevated arousal levels can improve performance up to a certain point. Learn more about how this works and why sometimes a little bit of stress can actually help you perform your best.

A Closer Look at the Relationship Between Arousal and Performance

Have you ever noticed that you perform better when you are just a little bit nervous? For example, you might do better at an athletic event if you are excited about participating or do better on an exam if you are somewhat anxious about your score.

In psychology, this relationship between arousal levels and performance is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. What impact can this have on our behavior and performance?

How Does the Yerkes-Dodson Law Work?

The Yerkes-Dodson Law suggests that there is a relationship between performance and arousal. Increased arousal can help improve performance, but only up to a certain point. At the point when arousal becomes excessive, performance diminishes.

The law was first described in 1908 by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson. They discovered that mild electrical shocks could be used to motivate rats to complete a maze, but when the electrical shocks became too strong, the rats would scurry around in random directions to escape. The experiment demonstrated that increasing stress and arousal levels could help focus motivation and attention on the task at hand, but only up to a certain point.

The anxiety you experience before an exam is one example of how the Yerkes-Dodson Law operates. An optimal level of stress can help you focus on the test and remember the information that you studied; too much test anxiety can impair your ability to concentrate and make it more difficult to remember the correct answers.

Athletic performance offers another great example of the Yerkes-Dodson Law. When a player is poised to make an important move, like making a basket during a basketball game, an ideal level of arousal can sharpen his performance and enable him to make the shot. When a player gets too stressed out, he might instead "choke" and miss the shot.

A Observations About the Yerkes-Dodson Law

So how do you determine what arousal levels are ideal? The key thing to remember is that this can vary from one task to the next. Research has found, for example, that performance levels decrease earlier for complex tasks than for simple tasks even with the same levels of arousal. What does this mean exactly? If you are performing a relatively simple task, you are capable of dealing with a much larger range of arousal levels. Household tasks such as doing laundry or loading the dishwasher are less likely to be affected by either very low or very high arousal levels.

If you were doing a much more complex task, such as working on a paper for a class or memorize difficult information, your performance would be much more heavily influenced by low and high arousal levels.

If your arousal levels are too low, you might find yourself drifting off or even falling asleep before you can even get started on the assignment. Arousal levels that are too high could be just as problematic, making it difficult to concentrate on the information long enough to complete the task.

Too much and too little arousal can also have an effect on different types of athletic performance tasks. While a basketball player or baseball player might need to control excessive arousal in order to concentrate on successfully performing complex throws or pitches, a track sprinter might rely on high arousal levels to motivate peak performance. In such cases, the type of task and complexity of the task play a role in determining the optimal levels of arousal.

Sources

Coon, D. & Mitterer, J. O. (2007). Introduction to psychology. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Hayes, N. (2000). Foundations of psychology, 3rd edition. London: Thomson Learning.

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