Yerkes-Dodson’s law: the relationship between stress and performance

Many people feel that their performance improves when they are under pressure. For example, you may have been amazed more than once at how easily you managed to memorize an exam topic by studying it only the day before, compared to other times you have taken much more time.

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

    Yerkes-Dodson law or inverted U model

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

    The Yerkes and Dodson model postulates that the relationship between stress and performance can be represented as an inverted U shape. That means 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 have a negative impact on the result of the task.

    Thus, Yerkes-Dodson’s Law states that the best way to improve performance is to increase motivation to perform objective tasks, although it is equally important to ensure that the workload does not become difficult to manage because it interferes with the natural development of the activity and generates unpleasant feelings.

    When we perform tasks with a low level of stress or alertness, we are often bored or the lack of pressure reduces our productivity; if the demands are excessive, we tend to experience feelings of anxiety and general psychological distress. On the contrary, when the task is stimulating and stimulating, we concentrate more.

    In this sense, we can relate Yerkes-Dodson’s law to another very popular psychological concept: the state of flux (or “flux”) described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. According to this author, stimulating tasks, adapted to the level of competence, with clearly defined objectives and with an immediate return generate a complete and rewarding mental implication.

      Factors influencing the relationship between stress and performance

      They have at least four factors a very relevant role in the relationship between the level of activation and productivity: The complexity of the task, the skill level of the person doing it, their personality in general and the anxiety factor in particular. Each of them modulates in a key way the effects of Yerkes-Dodson’s law.

      1. Complexity of the task

      If the task at hand is difficult, we will have to invest more cognitive resources (such as attention or working memory) than if we were not. Therefore, complex tasks require a lower level of pressure to achieve optimal performance than the simple ones, because they are stimulating in themselves.

      From this arises the idea that it is important to adapt environmental pressure levels to the difficulty of the task in order to increase productivity, so that quiet environments are more recommended when performing difficult activities. , while an enriched environment can help you improve quality by tackling easy tasks.

      2. Skill level

      As with the difficulty of the tasks, taking into account the skill level of the subject is crucial in determining what the ideal environmental pressure is. You could say that practice in a field reduces the difficulty of the tasks around itSo, relating these two variables can be useful to apply the Yerkes-Dodson law.

      3. Personality

      It would be reductive to think that changing the level of environmental stimulation or pressure without further delay can allow us to reliably influence the performance of others: if we did, we would be ignoring something as important as the personality of others. each individual.

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

        4. Anxiety-trait

        The personality factor that we call the “anxiety trait” refers to the tendency to experience negative emotions related to anxiety, such as agitation, fear and worry. The anxiety trait is at the heart of building neuroticism; in this sense, it is opposed to the factor Emotional stability.

        As can be assumed, people who have a very marked tendency to experience anxiety almost always react negatively to increased stress levels. As with introverted people, it can be a big mistake to forget that people with this trait perform best with low levels of stimulation.

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