The Yerkes-Dodson Law and Performance

Yerkes – Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law and Performance

The Yerkes – Dodson Law suggests that performance and arousal are directly related. In simpler terms, increase in arousal to a certain level can help to boost performance. Once the arousal crosses the optimal level, performance of the individual starts to diminish.

The law was first proposed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. In their experiment, they discovered that rats could be motivated to complete a maze with slight electrical shocks.

But, when the shocks were of the higher degree, their performance level decreased and they just ran about seeking for an escape.

It was clear from the experiment that arousal levels helped to focus attention and motivation on the task at hand, but only until an optimum point.

[Related Reading: Arousal Theory of Motivation]

Example 1

One of the finest examples of this law is the anxiety you face during exam.

If your anxiety level is at an optimum balance, then you’ll find yourself performing better by remembering right answers to the question.

However, if you’re over anxious you’ll instead feel nervousness and test anxiety, which would then hamper your ability remember the information you specifically learned for the test.

Example 2

Another final example of this law can be taken by looking at the athletic performance of an athlete. A football player hitting a penalty at the last minute of the game can be a nerve wrecking moment for the player.

At that instance, if his arousal level is at an ideal level, he will stay composed and scored a goal. However, if he’s too stressed out in the moment, he might instead hit the ball too slow or might not even hit the frame.


It’s now agreed upon that optimal level of arousal is different for different tasks. our daily activities, some tasks are much simpler to us while others require bit more work. For instance, if we were to take a shower, it’s a task that doesn’t require much attention. So in that sense, it’s a simple task.

We could be half asleep and still wash up well. On the other hand, if we were to appear for a test or write a paper on some topic, it would require higher level of attention. Meaning, our optimal level of arousal for complex task, such as writing a paper is higher than the simpler task such as taking shower.

“Some examples of the Yerkes-Dodson law might be helpful. At a track meet, it is almost impossible for sprinters to get too aroused for a race.

The task is direct and uncomplicated: Run as fast as you can for a short distance. On the other hand, a basketball player making a game-deciding free throw faces a more sensitive and complex task.

Excessive arousal is almost certain to hurt his or her performance.”
(Coon & Mitterer, 2007)

Another example of the Yerkes Dodson law regarding complex and simpler task can be taken, again, in athletic performance. Let’s say, we have a runner and a footballer. A runner’s job is to run and just that, which is pretty uncomplicated for someone who is used to it.

So on that note, he wouldn’t require the highest level of arousal. On the other hand, if a footballer was to take the decisive penalty for his team at the 90th minute, he would need to be composed and his arousal level has to be at the optimum level.

Excessive arousal or lack of it would definitely hurt his performance.

Three Levels of Yerkes Dodson Law

Low Arousal Level

The initial stage of the inverted U model (the curve) is low arousal level. it’s mainly associated with lack of sleep, lack of motivation, fatigue, lower body temperature and so on. This is the state of our body when we’re not expecting to perform any complex tasks, or we just have low motivation to do anything. Thus, our attentional mechanisms aren’t really active.

Optinium Arousal Level

Optinium arousal level is the condition of perfect balance where the individual isn’t too aroused neither under aroused, and thus the performance is also optimum for both simple and complex tasks. This is the level of peak shown in the curve. The performance level gradually increases as the curve heads towards the optinium level from the low arousal level, as shown in the graph.

High Arousal Level
This is the state when the arousal level of an individual is over the optimum balance.

It’s generally associated with panic, anxiety, lower concentration, physically tensing up, inability to make decisions, over-reacting and so on.

Our ability to focus on everything happening in our surrounding diminishes as our tension levels rise up, causing the performance to lower. This level of arousal can be related with, “falling apart under pressure”.

Four Influencers

The inverted U-curve model shown above is only for illustration, the reality however is slightly different from individual to individual depending on the situation.

The influencers that can affect this are

Skill Level

The skill level of an individual also effects his/her performance on the given task. A highly trained individual, confident in his skill, is more ly to cope well in high pressure situations, as the person would be able to rely on his well rehearsed responses.


Personality of an individual also affects how well he handles pressure. Psychologists believe that extroverts are better at handling pressure than introverts. wise, introverts perform better in the lack of pressure.

Trait Anxiety

It’s pretty obvious that a person’s self confidence also affects how he/she handles any situations. If a person’s confidence is high and he/she doesn’t question himself/herself repeatedly over their own abilities, then they are more ly to maintain composure in pressurized situations.

Task Complexity

The level of difficulty of the task is also another factor influencing the performance of an individual. As we have discussed earlier, it would be easier for an individual to take shower in half-sleepy state, but he would need to be in his A game to write an essay. Also, the level of complexity of any task varies from one individual to the next.


After studying the influencers and the U model, it can be concluded that influencers can be placed onto the model either lower or over the optimum arousal level. However, both lower and higher arousal levels can be maintained to the optimum balance.

Self-discipline and professionalism should help avoid performance issues on the left hand side of the graph, the lower arousal level.

Training, improvement of the required skill and experience can help avoid performance issues ont he right hand side of the graph, the higher arousal level.

Note: No matter how hard one tries, even the best of the best can suffer from performance issues when they can’t cope with the pressure, which could occur for variety of reasons.


The Inverted-U Theory: Balancing Performance and Pressure With the Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law and Performance

Have you ever worked on a project with a tight-but-achievable deadline, where your unique knowledge and skills were vital for a successful result? Even though you found it challenging, you may well have done some of your very best work.

Or, think back to a task where you felt little pressure to deliver. The deadline may have been flexible, or perhaps the work wasn't challenging. Chances are, you did an average job at best.

There's a subtle relationship between pressure and performance. When people experience the right amount of pressure, they often perform brilliantly. However, if there's too much or too little pressure, performance can suffer.

In this article, you'll learn how the Inverted-U theory – also known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law – can help you to understand the relationship between pressure and performance. The result will be that you'll get the best from a happy and engaged team!

Click here to watch our video on the Inverted-U Theory/Yerkes-Dodson Law.

What Is the Inverted-U Theory?

The Inverted-U Theory was created by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908. Despite its age, it's a model that has stood the test of time.

The theory describes a clear relationship between pressure and performance. In the original research, pressure was exerted by electric shocks – to motivate rats to escape from a maze!

The Inverted-U Theory gets its name from the curve created when the correlation between pressure (or «arousal») and performance is shown on a graph. See figure 1, below.

Figure 1: The Inverted-U Curve.

From «The Relation of Strength of Stimulus to Rapidity of Habit‐Formation» by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson. Published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology (1908). Work now in the public domain.

According to Yerkes and Dodson, peak performance is achieved when the level of pressure we experience is appropriate for the work we're doing. When we're under too much or too little pressure, performance declines, sometimes severely.

Understanding the Inverted-U Curve

The left hand side of the graph, above, shows the situation where people aren't being challenged. Here, they see no reason to work hard at a task, or they're in danger of approaching their work in a «sloppy,» unmotivated way.

The middle of the graph shows where people work at peak effectiveness. They're sufficiently motivated to work hard, but they're not so overloaded that they're starting to struggle. This is where people can experience «flow,» the enjoyable and highly productive state in which they can do their best work. (For more on this, see our article, The Flow Model.)

The right hand side of the graph shows where they're starting to fall apart under pressure. They're overwhelmed by the volume and scale of competing demands on their attention, and feeling a serious lack of control over their situation. They may exhibit signs of hurry sickness, stress, or out-and-out panic.

In reality, the exact shape of the curve will depend on both the individual and their situation. It's also important to recognize that seemingly small changes in professional or personal life can lead to rapid repositioning on the curve.

What's the Difference Between Pressure and Stress?

The Inverted-U Theory shows that pressure can be positive – up to a point. Stress, however, is never positive, and it's important not to confuse the two ideas.

When the levels of pressure we're experiencing are right for the work we're doing, we're stimulated in a beneficial way: motivated, engaged, and excited about doing our best. But stress happens when people feel control, and it's a wholly negative thing.

The Inverted-U Theory is about using pressure wisely, always aware of where the benefits end and stress begins.

For more information about how to identify and manage stress, see our article, Minimizing Workplace Stress.

You can take steps to manage the way you experience pressure by using techniques such as Relaxation Imagery, Centering, and Deep Breathing.

You can also use Affirmations to maintain a positive outlook and control.

Consider teaching these techniques to your teams, too – though you'll also need to have the right organizational processes in place to ensure that pressure levels remain beneficial.

The Four Influencers of the Inverted-U Theory

The impact of pressure can be complex. But four key factors, or «influencers,» affect how the Inverted-U Theory plays out in practice*:

  1. Skill Level.
  2. Personality.
  3. Trait Anxiety.
  4. Task Complexity.

1. Skill Level

Someone's level of skill with a given task will directly influence their performance, in terms of both their attitude and their results.

For a while, a new task is ly to be challenging enough. Later, if it starts to feel too easy, some form of extra pressure might be needed to help the person re-engage with their role.

Don't worry about people becoming too skilled or too confident. You can use the other influencers to balance this, so that they feel the optimum amount of positive pressure. Increased skill and confidence can only bring benefits to individuals and organizations.

2. Personality

A person's personality also affects how well they perform.

For instance, some psychologists believe that people who are extroverts are ly to perform better in high-pressure situations. People with an introverted personality, on the other hand, may perform better with less pressure.

The Inverted-U Theory prompts us to match our own personalities – and those of our people – to appropriate tasks. Observation, detailed knowledge of individuals, and open communication, are all important when we're allocating roles and responsibilities.

Although not addressed directly within the Inverted-U Theory, it's important to remember that people can experience various forms of personal pressure (from their family lives, for instance, or from underlying concerns about their role or organization). Try to bear these pressures in mind when setting deadlines and allocating tasks.

3. Trait Anxiety

Think of trait anxiety as the level of a person's «self-talk.» People who are self-confident are more ly to perform better under pressure. This is because their self-talk is under control, which means that they can stay «in flow,» and they can concentrate fully on the situation at hand.

By contrast, people who criticize or question themselves are ly to be distracted by their self-talk, which can cause them to lose focus in more challenging situations.

The more that people are able to lower their anxiety about a task (with practice, or with positive thinking, for example) the better they'll perform.

4. Task Complexity

Task complexity describes the level of attention and effort that people have to put into a task in order to complete it successfully. People can perform simple activities under quite high levels of pressure, while complex activities are better carried out in a calm, low-pressure environment.

But even when someone's skill levels are high, they may still benefit from a calm environment in which to carry out their most complex work. Conversely, people carrying out low-complexity tasks may need extra stimulation in order to feel motivated and achieve their potential.

Using the Inverted-U Theory

The simplest way to use the Inverted-U Theory is to be aware of it when you allocate tasks and projects to people on your team, and when you plan your own workload.

Start by thinking about existing pressures. If you're concerned that someone might be at risk of overload, see if you can take some of the pressure off them. This is a simple step to help them improve the quality of their work.

By contrast, if anyone is underworked, it may be in everyone's interest to shorten some deadlines, increase key targets, or add extra responsibilities – but only with clear communication and agreement.

From there, balance the factors that contribute to pressure, so that your people can perform at their best. Remember, too little pressure can be just as stressful as too much!

Try to provide team members with tasks and projects of an appropriate level of complexity, and work to build confidence in the people who need it.

Also, manage any negativity in your team, and train your people so that they have the skills they need to do the jobs they're given. Our article on Training Needs Assessment (TNA) will help you do this. Tools the Four Dimensions of Relational Work can also help you match tasks to people's personalities and interpersonal skills.

However, bear in mind that you won't always be able to balance the «influencers.» Motivate and empower your people so that they can make effective decisions for themselves.

The Inverted-U Theory illustrates the relationship between pressure and performance. Also known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, it explains how to find the optimum level of positive pressure at which people perform at their best. Too much or too little pressure can lead to decreased performance.

Various factors affect how much people react to pressure in different situations. There are «four influencers» that can affect how much pressure people feel:

  1. Skill Level.
  2. Personality.
  3. Trait Anxiety.
  4. Task Complexity.

The Inverted-U Theory helps you to observe and manage these four factors, aiming for a balance that supports engagement, well-being, and peak performance.

You can use the model by managing these four influencers, and by being aware of how they can positively or negatively influence your people's performance.

*Originator unknown. If you know the originator of the «Four Influencers,» please contact us.


The Yerkes-Dodson Law: Performance and Arousal

The Yerkes-Dodson Law and Performance

The Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that there’s a direct relationship between performance and arousal. Psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson developed this law in 1908.

The Yerkes-Dodson law establishes that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a certain point. When excitation levels become too high, performance decreases. According to this law, the best way to enhance arousal and performance is to work on tasks that allow us to remain alert.

In their experiment, Yerkes and Dodson discovered that electric shocks could motivate rats to complete a maze. However, when they overly shocked them, their performance level decreased and they simply just tried to escape. The experiment demonstrated that arousal levels helped to focus attention on the task at hand, but only up to a certain point.

How the Yerkes-Dodson Law works

An example of how the Yerkes-Dodson law works is the anxiety you experience before a test. An optimal stress level can help you focus on the test and remember information. However, too much anxiety can affect your ability to concentrate, which in turn hinders your ability to remember information.

Another great example of how the Yerkes-Dodson law works is sports performance. When an athlete is ready to make an important movement, an ideal level of excitement (an adrenaline release) can boost their performance and allow them to succeed. But when the athlete is too stressed out, this may jeopardize their performance big time.

So, what determines an ideal level of excitement? This question doesn’t have a single answer since the different levels of excitement vary from one task to another.

For example, it’s known that performance levels decrease when there’s a low activation level. This means that if you’re doing a relatively simple task, you can manage a much higher range of activation levels.

Simple tasks such as making copies or doing housework are less ly to be affected by very low or very high activation levels. However, your performance for much more complex tasks is, in fact, influenced by low and high activation levels.

If an individual’s excitement levels are too low, they may feel that they lack the necessary energy to carry out the task. However, really high excitement levels could be just as problematic and can result in a lack of concentration.

The inverted U model

What Yerkes and Dodson describe is often illustrated graphically as a bell-shaped curve that increases and then decreases with higher excitation levels. This explains why many people know the Yerkes-Dodson law as the inverted U model.

Due to the differences in tasks, the shape of the curve can vary. For simple or well-learned tasks, the relationship is monotone and performance improves as excitement increases. However, for complex, unknown, or difficult tasks, there’s a point where the relationship between arousal and performance reverses, meaning that performance decreases as excitement increases.

On one hand, the upward part of the inverted U represents the energizing effect of the excitation. On the other hand, the negative effects of arousal (or stress) on cognitive processes such as attention, memory, and problem-solving lead to the downward part of it.

According to the inverted U model, a moderate pressure level allows an individual to achieve their maximum performance. When they experience too much or not enough pressure, their performance decreases, in some cases quite severely.

The left side of the graph illustrates when a person isn’t being challenged, doesn’t see a reason to work hard on a task, or is about to approach their work in a careless and unmotivated way.

Half of the graph shows when a person works with maximum efficiency, when they’re motivated to work hard but don’t feel pressured.

The right side of the graph shows when they’re beginning to give in to pressure because they’re feeling too overwhelmed.

The four influential factors

The inverted U model is different for every individual depending on the situation. In fact, there are four influential factors that can affect this curve: skill level, personality, anxiety trait, and the complexity of the task.

The individual’s level of ability also affects their performance in the task at hand. A highly trained person who is confident in their abilities is more ly to appropriately manage situations where there’s a lot of pressure since they can rely on their well-rehearsed answers.

Additionally, the individual’s personality also plays a big part in the way they handle pressure. Psychologists believe that extroverts are better at handling pressure than introverts. Thus, one could assume that introverts perform better in the absence of pressure.

As for the anxiety trait, an individual’s confidence also influences the way they manage any situation. A confident person is more ly to stay composed under pressure because they won’t be doubting their abilities as much as an insecure individual.

Lastly, a task’s complexity is another factor that influences an individual’s performance. Making copies isn’t as difficult as having to write an essay or clinical report. However, a task’s complexity varies from one person to another.

Despite being more than a century old, the Yerkes-Dodson law is still very useful today. In fact, it’s still being studied, especially in work and sports performance.

Research conducted between 1950 and 1980 confirmed that there is a correlation between high stress levels and boosted motivation and focus. However, those studies weren’t able to establish the exact cause of this.

In the year 2007, researchers suggested that this correlation is related to the brain’s production of stress hormones that, when measured during memory performance tests, showed a curve that’s similar to the Yerkes-Dodson law. In addition, this study demonstrated a positive correlation between good memory and performance, suggesting that stress hormones may also be responsible for the Yerkes-Dodson effect.

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