Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal and Performance

How does arousal affect performance?

I’m not talking about that type of arousal or performance. In psychology, “arousal” refers to a state in which the body and mind are conscious and the senses can perceive what is going on around them. Theories like the Yerkes-Dodson law, also known as teh Yerkes-Dodson curve, describes how arousal affects overall performance.

What Is the Yerkes-Dodson Law? 

The Yerkes-Dodson Law explains the relationship between arousal and performance. Yerkes-Dodson Law suggests that arousal can enhance performance, but only up to a certain point. Once a person gets too alert, too stressed, or too aroused, they start to lose their ability to focus, solve problems, and perform. 

Heart rate, attention, and alertness are all affected by arousal. If someone is experiencing “high” arousal, they may find themselves in fight-or-flight mode. This is a state of anxiety or stress where you might find yourself acting out or running away without being able to process information. 

If you’re in high-stress mode, you’re not going to be able to complete a puzzle. But if you’re lazing away at home, with no cares in the world, that puzzle’s probably not going to get done, either. It takes attention, motivation, and a little push to complete this task. 

Yerkes-Dodson Law Example

Think about pulling an all-nighter. How relaxing is that? 

Most of the time, it’s not very relaxing at all. Sure, you might start out the night amped and ready to finish a project or study for a big test. But as the hours tick on, you might start to get frantic. Stress levels are high. Your brain needs a rest. Your body needs sleep. Those last few hours are not very productive at all. 

Why do you pull these all-nighters? Often, it’s because you didn’t get anything done in the days or weeks before. When the test or project is assigned, you’ve got no worries. No stress at all. You’ll get all of your studying done later. 

The high stress of pulling an all-nighter doesn’t make for the best learning environment. But surprisingly, low stress doesn’t help you out, either. 

Who Is Yerkes and Dodson?

In 1908, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson observed rats in a maze. Small amounts of electric shocks would encourage the rats to move through the maze and find their way out. But the rats had a breaking point. Once they received a high enough amount of electric shocks, they shut down and failed to move through the maze. This is how they developed the Yerkes-Dodson law. 

Factors Influencing Yerkes-Dodson Law

So you just need a bit of electric shock and you can do anything, right? 

Not exactly. The Yerkes-Dodson Law doesn’t look the same for every person and every task. Consider these factors that influence the shape and size of the Yerkes-Dodson Law’s “Inverted U” shape. 

Complexity of the Task 

Have you ever found yourself slipping up on the easiest task? Maybe it’s as simple as changing the address on your credit card. But when you go back, you realize you put in the wrong zip code. Where does the Yerkes-Dodson Law play into these tasks? 

The complexity of the task actually makes a big difference into the arousal necessary to increase performance. When it comes to a difficult or daunting task, you need less stress to become concentrated and focused on the task. If the task is easier, more arousal is necessary to focus in on the task and improve performance. 

The tasks that appear “easy” may feel like throwaway tasks. This includes memorizing terms for a test. Don’t let your concentration plummet just because you know you can memorize terms. 

Skill Level 

If you’ve never held a basketball in your life, no amount of stress is going to help you dunk. Skill level also plays a part in your ability to complete and focus on a task. When you don’t have any skills, you don’t even know what to focus on. Let’s say you are new to skateboarding, and you want to master a kickflip. You probably don’t know how to adjust your balance, your feet, or how to jump.

Do you know how to study for a test? Do you know what methods and environmental factors can help you absorb information better, and apply it on the day of the test? Consider these skills first before you ramp up your stress levels. 

Personality 

We all know someone who performs really well on a test after cramming all night. We also all know someone who wouldn’t even bother to cram because it doesn’t help them. Personality does make a difference in how stress and arousal affect performance. 

stressed man

Some people do not deal well with stress. They let the smallest amount of stress spiral out of control. It doesn’t take long before their performance is impaired and they need to calm down. 

Other people can manage stress well. They understand that although they feel stress now, they can control it and it’s not permanent. These people will find that they can concentrate and perform better, even with high amounts of stress. 

General confidence also plays a role here. If someone is confident in their skill level, even if their skill level isn’t that high, they can take on the “pressure” to perform and stay focused. Someone who is insecure in their skills will “break” and let anxiety weigh them down faster. 

How To Perform Best Using the Yerkes-Dodson Law

Is it okay to put a little pressure on yourself while studying for a test or solving a problem? Yes. But don’t let it get the best of you. Start to become aware of your “limits” and when focus on the task turns into focus on your stress. As you find yourself reaching those limits, have some stress-management techniques in your back pocket ready to calm you down. Deep breaths, mantras, and other tools can help you perform well on a task without becoming too aroused.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.