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? What exactly is the Yerkes-Dodson Law and how does it 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.
- "The optimal level of arousal varies for different tasks, with complex tasks showing an earlier performance decrement than simple tasks, for the same level of arousal. In other words, if we are performing a relatively simple task, then we can cope with a much larger range of arousal levels - the curve is flatter. So, for example, if you are doing the washing-up, you would not do it very well if your state of arousal was very low indeed, and you were half-asleep; but equally, you would be very upset indeed if you started to break things (accidentally, that is). But if you were engaged in a complex task, like trying to write an essay, you might need to be a bit more aroused - or at least, alert - before you could get started. Equally, however, getting upset would interfere with your ability to write the essay much more than it would interfere with your ability to wash up."
- "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)
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Coon, D. & Mitterer, J. O. (2007). Introduction to psychology. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Hayes, N. (2000). Foundations of psychology, 3rd edition. London: Thomson Learning.