Yerkes-Dodson Law

Definitions. Psychology Fanatic.
Definitions. Psychology Fanatic.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law proposes that we reach a peak level of performance with an intermediate level of arousal. ​The Yerkes-Dodson law is also known as the inverted-U model of arousal. 

Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson proposed the law in 1908. Yerkes and Dodson formed their theory while performing experiments on mice. They were able to teach mice to learn a task (a habit) more quickly when using a mild shock. As the shocks increased in intensity, the learning peaked, then declined.

According to the law, Yerkes and Dodson hypothesized that arousal increases our ability to form a habit or perform a task. Arousal (or stress) motivates. However, when arousal reaches a certain point, performance and learning begins to deteriorate. The stress interferes, frightens and distracts. 

Yerkes Dodson Law of Arousal chart
Yerkes Dodson Law of Arousal

Arthur Markman PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, explains “at low levels of arousal, you’re just not that interested in the goal, so you don’t put in much effort to achieve it. At high levels of arousal, you have so much energy that you have difficulty staying focused on the task at hand (which I called panic). In the middle, there is a sweet spot where you’re able to focus on the goal and get a lot accomplished” (2015, location 1450).

What is the Optimal Stress Level?

Research has found that that optimal levels of stress vary between people and tasks. We may perform well in one area of life while under tremendous stress, while in other areas the minimal stress overwhelms.

Some generalities exist. For example, intellectually demanding tasks may require a lower level of arousal to facilitate concentration, whereas tasks demanding stamina or persistence may require higher levels of arousal to increase motivation.

Folk Model

The Yerkes-Dodson Law received very little attention until the 1950’s. For the following few decades, it was elevated to the status of psychological law without any supporting replicating studies. In a much more recent paper, in describing the Yerkes-Dodson Law, the authors wrote, “psychology has long been haunted by common-sense theories of behaviour which “are not necessarily incorrect, but compared to articulate models they focus on descriptions rather than explanations and are therefore very hard to prove wrong” (2015).

The Yerkes-Dodson Model falls into this category. Certainly, there is some truth to the observation in some situations. However, how and when to apply the model is much more complicated.

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Corbett, Martin (2015). From law to folklore: work stress and the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 30(6), 741-752.

Markman, A. (2015). Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others. ‎ TarcherPerigee; Reprint edition.

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