Yerkes-Dodson Law: How Pressure Affects Performance

Yerkes-Dodson Law: How Pressure Affects Performance

Yerkes-Dodson law suggests how pressure affects your performance. You perform better with pressure until a certain point. But, when the tension mounts further, your efficiency declines.

Have you been nervous before a test, yet aced it? What about delivering a project on a tight deadline?

If you have gone through any of the two experiences you’ll remember how you did your best despite the challenge. Though the target wasn’t comfortable to achieve due to the pressure, you pushed your limits and delivered more than you otherwise would.

But does pressure help you improve your performance in every scenario? Not exactly. Once the pressure surpasses a threshold, it leads to poor performance. For example, when you’re working on a project with an over cramped deadline, the stress and anxiety prevent you from even putting in your usual effort.

Yerkes-Dodson law

In this article, we’ll go through the Yerkes-Dodson’s Law, the reason why it occurs, and how to use it the right way for self-improvement

What is the Yerkes-Dodson law?

Yerkes-Dodson law states that when performing a task, an increase in pressure boosts performance, but only until a point. As pressure increases further, your performance declines, especially if you’re performing a complex task. For well learned or simple jobs, after a certain point, additional pressure makes no difference.

Keeping complexity aside, the Yerkes Dodson law follows an upside-down U curve, also called the bell curve. The figure below depicts how pressure affects performance:

Let’s go through 2 real-life scenarios to illustrate the point.

Case 1: Getting dressed for work(simple task)

Case 2: Solving a mathematical puzzle(complex task)

If you wake up 15 minutes late, you’re under a tighter timeline to get ready for work. To achieve that result, you’d brush your teeth quickly, iron your clothes faster, and rush through your breakfast.

But what if, you woke up 45 minutes after the alarm? You’d barely have any time to finish your morning chores. Would you manage to speed up the activities further? No, you wouldn’t because you cannot go faster than a limit. You’d have to skip breakfast and reach the office with a bad breath. Additional pressure makes no difference to your performance after the threshold.

In the case of the mathematical puzzle, your performance works differently. Let’s say on a normal day, you need 5 minutes to solve the problem. If you only had 4 minutes to finish the task, you’d think faster and experiment with new techniques to get the job done. But what if you had to solve the puzzle in 2 minutes? The stress would impair your brain cells and you’d end up committing mistakes that you otherwise wouldn’t.

The graph below explains how pressure affects your performance during simple and complex tasks.

relationship between pressure and complexity of task
Yerkes and Dodson 1908, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why does pressure improve performance?

As per psychology, the increased pressure creates mental arousal. You can consider it a combination of stress and excitement which causes you to stretch your limits. The reason why they push you out of your comfort zone are:

  1. Increase in motivation
  2. Increase in attention/focus

When you’re aware of a stringent timeline, you focus all your attention and motivation to get your job done. Phones land in the drawer and the television goes into the power off mode. Such a distraction-free environment combined with the added pinch of enthusiasm helps you perform better.

Related article: How to motivate yourself to do better

But, you cannot improve your attention and motivation indefinitely. You hit a peak value beyond which our physical and mental limitations act as a barrier. If the challenge forces you to stretch beyond that threshold, our performance can take a nosedive.

Research and experiments:

The first research on the Yerkes Dodsons Law took place over 100 years ago in 1908. The effect is named after the two psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson who noticed an empirical relationship between pressure and performance in the early 20th century.

They formulated their theory based on the experiments conducted on mice.

rat in a maze

Have you wondered why scientists perform their first tests on mice? Sure, they’re small in size and easy to maintain. But, another reason which most are unaware of is that the genetic, biological, and behavioral characteristics of mice closely resemble humans. So, many of the human symptoms and behavioral traits can be replicated in mice.

During the Yerkes Dodson experiment, they released rats into a maze and tracked the time they required to find a way out. If you assumed rats run around with minimal thought, you’ve underestimated those little hairy mammals. Mice are highly intelligent for their brain size and possess the capacity to understand and learn concepts. Of course, you cannot expect them to solve a differential equation, but they can figure out what’s working and what’s not by trying different options. Therefore, if you drop a rat in a maze, sooner or later, it will find a way out.

When Yerkes and Dodson performed the experiment, they observed mice behavior after subjecting them to various degrees of shock. When the shock was mild, the mice performed better and found a way out faster. But, when the shock was above a certain limit, they scampered around out of panic without any logic.

How to apply Yerkes Dodson law for self-improvement:

Yerkes Dodson law is simple in theory and each one of us has experienced it one way or the other in the past. But, here’s the kicker. You can use the Yerkes Dodson law to improve your skills if you apply it in your day to day life. Here are two pointers to use the awareness of the law to achieve your goals.

Don’t make your goals too easy

If you let your body operate on autopilot, you’d operate at a level which you’re comfortable with. But, if you have to improve at achieving your goals, you’d have to challenge yourself to do a tad bit better.

“But how much should I challenge myself?” you wonder. That’s where you can apply the Yerkes Dodson Law.

Increase the difficulty of the task you’re working on such that you feel the right amount of pressure. Neither too easy that you stick to the routine and nor too tough that your performance breaks down.

Take any task, from tying your shoelaces to learning rocket science. You can make the job more difficult by challenging yourself to work on one or both of:

  • Speed
  • Complexity

If you’re frying an omelette, you can attempt to beat eggs faster or take a shot at a new recipe. To become a mathematician, you can aim to solve the usual problems faster or try your hand at problems slightly above your level of knowledge.

If cooking or mathematics isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Pay more attention to the regular tasks you work on. Don’t jog the same distance at the same speed or work on a routine job like you always do. If you’re determined, you will find a way to increase speed or difficulty in almost all the tasks you do.

Related article: How to make incremental improvements

Don’t make your goals too tough

When you pressurize yourself to achieve difficult targets in a short time frame, your mind and body cannot cope with the abrupt change.

For example:

  • Don’t try to wake up at 5 AM after watching a motivational video when you’re used to waking up at 10 AM
  • Don’t attempt running 5 miles if you’re new to a fitness regimen
  • Don’t walk up a stage with a thousand viewers as the first step to get over stage fright

Take one step at a time and allow yourself to get used to the change little by little. If you take a shot at a hard challenge out of nowhere, you’ll end up with poor performance which can demotivate you. Taking an arduous first step is a recipe for failure because you feel you’re not good enough and give up right after.

Conclusion

Yerkes-Dodson law provides a powerful methodology to implement incremental improvements in your daily life. If you look around yourself with mindfulness, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to put it into practice.

Tomorrow, when you perform a routine task, ask yourself what’s the right way to challenge yourself so that you can do it faster or better. Will you?

References:

Diamond, D. (2005, January). Cognitive, endocrine and mechanistic perspectives on non-linear relationships between arousal and brain function. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2657838/

Yerkes–Dodson law. (2020, November 23). Retrieved December 26, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes%E2%80%93Dodson_law

The Mind Tools Content Team By the Mind Tools Content Team, Team, T., Wrote, B., Wrote, A., & Wrote, M. (n.d.). The Inverted-U Theory: Balancing Performance and Pressure With the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/inverted-u.htm




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