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Yerkes-Dodson Law: the relationship between stress and performance

Yerkes-Dodson Law: the relationship between stress and performance

July 23, 2024

Many people have the feeling that their performance improves when they feel pressured. For example, it is likely that more than once you have been surprised by the ease with which you have managed to memorize the syllabus of an exam despite studying it only the day before, compared to other occasions in which you have spent much more time.

In this article we will talk about the law of Yerkes-Dodson, as the model of the inverted U is usually called about the relationship between activation level and performance. This hypothesis was proposed by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson more than a century ago; however, it is still in force today because of the remarkable strength it has shown.


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The law of Yerkes-Dodson or model of the inverted U

In the year 1908 the psychologists Robert Mearns Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson published their model of the inverted U, result of the studies that they realized around the influence of the pressure (that can be understood as the level of stress, activation or physiological alert and cognitive) in performance on tasks that involve complex mental operations.

The Yerkes and Dodson model states that the relationship between stress and performance can be represented in the form of an inverted U. This means that the performance will be optimal if the activation level is moderately high ; On the other hand, if it is too high or too low, it will negatively affect the result of the task.


Thus, the law of Yerkes-Dodson states that the best way to enhance performance is to increase the motivation to carry out the objective tasks, although it is equally important to ensure that the workload does not become difficult to manage, since that this interferes with the natural development of the activity and generates unpleasant feelings.

When we carry out tasks with a low level of stress or alert, we often get bored or lack of pressure reduces our productivity; If the demands are excessive we tend to experience feelings of anxiety and general psychological malaise. On the other hand, when the task is stimulating and challenging, we concentrate more.

In this sense, we can relate Yerkes-Dodson's law to another very popular psychological concept: the state of flow (or "flow") described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. According to this author, stimulating tasks, appropriate to the skill level, with clearly defined objectives and with immediate feedback generate a complete and rewarding mental involvement.


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Influential factors in the relationship between stress and performance

There are at least four factors that have a very important role in the relationship between the level of activation and productivity : the complexity of the task, the skill level of the person who completes it, his personality in general and the anxiety-trait factor in particular. Each of them modulates in a key way the effects of the law of Yerkes-Dodson.

1. Complexity of the task

If the task that we have to carry out is difficult, we will need to invest more cognitive resources (relative for example to the attention or to the operative memory) than if it were not. In consecuense, complex tasks require a lower level of pressure so that optimal performance is achieved than simple ones, since they are stimulating for themselves.

This leads to the idea that it is important to adapt the levels of environmental pressure to the difficulty of the task in order to boost productivity, so that quiet environments are more advisable when carrying out challenging activities, while an environment Enriched can help improve quality when facing easy tasks.

2. Skill level

As it happens with the difficulty of the tasks, taking into account the skill level of the subject is transcendental when determining what is the ideal environmental pressure. We can say that the practice in a domain reduces the difficulty of the tasks that are included in this one , so that relating these two variables can be useful when applying the law of Yerkes-Dodson.

3. Personality

It would be reductionist to think that modifying the level of stimulation or environmental pressure without more can allow us to influence the performance of other people in a reliable way: if we did, we would be ignoring something as important as the personality of each individual.

Thus, for example, if we follow the neurobiological theory of personality proposed by Hans Eysenck we can deduce that Extraverted people tend to need a higher level of brain activation to achieve its optimal performance, while biologically introverted people usually prefer that the environmental pressure be minimal.

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4. Anxiety-trait

The personality factor we know as "anxiety-trait" refers to the tendency to experience negative emotions related to anxiety, such as restlessness, fear and worry. The anxiety-trait constitutes the nucleus of the Neuroticism construct ; in this sense it is opposed to the emotional stability factor.

As it can be supposed, people who have a very marked tendency to feel anxiety practically always react in a negative way to the increase in stress levels. As in the case of introverts, it can be a serious mistake to forget that people with this characteristic work better with low levels of stimulation.

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What is YERKES-DODSON LAW? What does YERKES-DODSON LAW mean? YERKES-DODSON LAW meaning (July 2024).


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