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Let’s Understand The Yerkes-Dodson Law

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The Yerkes-Dodson Law says that there is a direct link between performance and arousal. Increased arousal can improve performance, but only up to a point. At the point when arousal becomes excessive, performance diminishes. That’s great, but what does it mean and why do we care?

Well, if the research conducted by Yerkes and Dodson is true, it means that we may be able to figure out the perfect state of arousal (or more accurately from the world as we understand it, a “heightened state” of controlled anxiety) to increase our performance. This is supposed to be true of athletic and non-athletic performance.

We’ve all experienced this heightened state at some point and I’m certain that you’ve noticed when it’s become overwhelming. If you can remember when you took your school exams, that anxious feeling just before you turned the paper is it. Some people can use that feeling to get the task completed whilst others experience too much stress and they crumble under the pressure.

Aside from impacting our performance, stress can cause many health issues and also hair loss in both men and women. Reducing your stress levels can help manage these issues, but that can be easier said than done. It’s certainly not impossible but does require some effort and possible lifestyle changes.

Athletes talk about being “in the zone” right before they compete and that feeling is likely their anxiety being controlled at just the right amount. So how can we control our anxiety and not let it overwhelm us?

1. Knowing What You’re Doing Helps!

It’s no surprise that whatever you’re trying to do, a good knowledge of the subject is going to be vital to your performance. Having said that, it’s not always possible and our minds are great at convincing us that we don’t know anything at all. Reminding yourself of all your qualifications and/or achievements can help you to realize that you have more than enough resources to do what you need to do and this will reduce the anxiety that causes a drop in performance.

Having a certain level of anxiety is a good thing and is supposed to help with performance. It’s natural to be nervous (to a degree) before any kind of performance. It keeps us on our toes and can focus the mind on doing well at the task. It’s that feeling of being pumped, as opposed to being a gibbering wreck and that’s the feeling to aim for.

2. Banish Negative Thoughts!

We, humans, have a terrible habit of always thinking the worst and when it comes to any kind of performance, our imaginations can run wild! I’m sure you can remember a time when you had to do something and you convinced yourself that all sorts of crazy stuff would go wrong. Usually, none of these things happen and everything works out just fine. That’s the thing to remember – More often than not, nothing goes wrong and everything goes to plan.

3. Be In Control!

Being in control of a situation usually helps to combat anxiety. When you’re in control, you’re not relying on other people’s efforts to do what you need to do. If you have to rely on other people, it’s common to have anxiety about what they could do wrong, as well as your doubts.

Doing so obviously magnifies your anxiety and that probably grows the more people are involved. There’s an old saying, “control what you can and let go of what you can’t” and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that.

4. Get Yourself a Ritual

We’ve all either seen or heard about performers who have some kind of pre-performance ritual. From athletes to rock stars, the one thing the most successful of them share is that they routinely use rituals to get their minds in a peak state. Great motivational speaker Tony Robbins, famously jumps on a small trampoline just before he walks out onto the stage. It’s his way of being energized, or in “the zone”.

5. Don’t Overthink

Ever hear the phrase “we’re our own worst enemy”? It’s 100% true. Humans spend a lot of time sabotaging their endeavors and that nagging voice in your head, is probably responsible for killing more dreams than anything else.

With knowledge and control, should come the ability to trust that we’re more than good enough to perform at the level we’ve chosen, whatever that is. Overthinking a situation will likely result in you doubting your abilities and that starts the anxiety creeping up. Trust yourself!

6. Breathe…

Breathing purposefully can have a dramatic impact on our levels of anxiety. When we start to go into panic mode, our heartbeat and respiratory system go into fight/flight mode and our body screams for oxygen to deal with one or the other.

Calm, deliberate breathing can quickly bring everything back down to earth and as our body returns to normal, the anxiety starts to melt away. You may have seen athletes, etc. take several deep breaths before they go into action and it’s a proven way of calming everything down quickly.

And Dont Forget to Have Fun

Now I’ll admit, not every situation where we have to perform is going to be fun, but there’s no reason we can’t still find enjoyable moments in the experience. If we’re determined to not only do well but enjoy the experience, not only will we perform better, but others will enjoy it more too. Olympic athletes like to get the crowd behind them by encouraging clapping and participation. This helps the athlete and the spectators get more “into” what’s happening.

The Yerkes-Dodson law shows us that it’s more than OK to feel a bit anxious before we perform in whatever way and that a small amount of anxiety can help us do our best. Things start to go wrong if we allow that anxiety to grow to the point it becomes the main focus of our brains.

Finding that sweet-spot of anxiety is not going to be easy, but with practice, we should be able to achieve a peak state more often.

Steve works as senior editor at PL. When he's not writing or slashing through content, he loves to dabble in board games, coffee and all-things-Agile.

2 Comments

  1. Why the Yerkes-Dodson law is false

    The Yerkes-Dodson law, in this video and indeed as represented throughout psychology, has nothing to do with the original work performed by Yerkes and Dodson, and is a falsehood. The problem though is that the Yerkes-Dodson law has little if anything to do with Yerkes or Dodson and may be rephrased to demonstrate correlations for many different psychological states. As the psychologist Karl Teigen put it: ” In its original form as published in 1908, the law was intended to describe the relation between stimulus strength and habit-formation for tasks varying in discrimination difficultness. But later generations of investigations and textbook authors have rendered it variously as the effects of punishment, reward, motivation, drive, arousal, anxiety, tension or stress upon learning, performance, problem-solving, coping or memory; while the task variable has been commonly referred to as difficulty, complexity or novelty, when it is not omitted altogether. These changes are seldom explicitly discussed and are often misattributed to Yerkes and Dodson themselves. The various reformulations are seen as reflecting conceptual changes and current developments in the areas of learning, motivation and emotion, and it is argued that the plasticity of the law also reflects the vagueness of basic psychological concepts in these areas.”
    Basically, the Yerkes Dodson curve plots performance against physical arousal, which presumably represents real discrete events that can be plotted across the X and Y axes. Thus, given an X amount of performance, you can reliably infer a Y amount of arousal, and vice versa. This is all well and good if performance and arousal are consistently defined things. The problem is, for arousal at least, it’s not. What is arousal? Indeed, there are many kinds: sexual, emotional, physical. Thus, a fellow can be aroused while peeping into the girls’ locker room, and aroused in a different way upon being discovered, and aroused more differently yet as he hightails it away.
    Moreover, different states of arousal have different relationships to performance, and can occur separately or at the same time. Attentive alertness, as a form of arousal, increases performance as arousal increases. On the other hand, tension and attendant autonomic arousal, or anxiety, always decreases performance. Separate them both and the Yerkes-Dodson curve disappears but combine them and out it pops. For example, a person who is highly and pleasurably aroused while climbing a mountain or creating art doesn’t suffer in performance as his arousal increases but gains in performance. On the other hand, a person who is frustrated while performing a task progressively loses his ability to perform well as anxiety increases. Nonetheless, as demand increases and decreases, these two very different types of arousal can occur simultaneously and produce a performance curve very similar to the Yerkes-Dodson model.
    As an aroused state, attentive alertness scales with the novelty or surprise of moment to moment behavior. As a function of the release of the neurochemical dopamine, touch and go events that entail continuous positive surprises (e.g. rock climbing, gambling, creative behavior) positively correlate with aroused alertness, which not only feels good but helps you think better. Thus, the bigger the positive surprise, the more alert you become, and the better your performance becomes. If, however, surprises start to trend from good to bad, alertness decreases as we become progressively more depressed, but tension and associated autonomic arousal (i.e. anxiety) increases. That is, as news moves from good to bad, arousal doesn’t increase, it just changes to an entirely new form! The problem though is that positive surprises always come at the risk that things will take a decided turn for the worse, as the rock climber get stuck in a snowstorm and the creative artist hits a writer’s block. Thus, the cost of higher good feelings is the chance you take that a turn of fortune will turn those good feelings bad. Generally, as demand increases risk increases, and at first we can handle it and be pleasantly surprised by and are motivated by the continuous moment to moment surprise of our success. But as demand ratchets up we are more likely to experience failure, and another type of arousal, that of anxiety. Hence as demand goes up, so do performance and arousal until performance reaches a crest and arousal begins to change not in amplitude but begins changing in kind. So, the Yerkes Dodson bell curve survives, it is rather the idea that arousal does not change in kind across the level of performance that falls away.
    The lesson we learn from all this is that the highest motivation or performance stands at the cusp of failure, as we are rarely motivated by the sure and thus boring thing. Unfortunately, what psychologists take from the Yerkes-Dodson curve is the wrong lesson entirely, that arousal is a monolithic and indivisible thing that does not categorically change as demand increases. In other words, the lesson that no pain equals no gain is wrong. Rather, if you have pain you will likely have no gain. For folks that are a bit wary of the school of hard knocks, this is perhaps a lesson one can get a bit excited about.

    Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18: 459–482.
    Teigen, K. (1994) Yerkes-Dodson, A Law for All Seasons. Theory and Psychology 4, 525-547 More on the Yerkes-Dodson law and other

    more on the Yerkes-Dodson law on p.67-73 of the my open source book ebook on rest, affect, and the unlikely laws that hold them up:

    https://www.scribd.com/doc/284056765/The-Book-of-Rest-The-Odd-Psychology-of-Doing-Nothing

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