What is the Yerkes-Dodson Law?

What is the Yerkes-Dodson law?

We all have experienced jitters before an exam or before going to the stage for a recitation competition. Sometimes this little performance anxiety pushes us to be our best. Sometimes an overload of this anxiety could really paralyze our ability to perform.

Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson (1908) explain this behavior. The law states that there is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance.

The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. The process is often illustrated graphically as a bell-shaped curve which increases and then decreases with higher levels of arousal.


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.


So, how do you determine what arousal levels are ideal? The key thing to remember is that this can vary from one task to the next. Research in 2007 found, for example, that performance levels decrease earlier for complex tasks than for simple tasks even with the same levels of arousal.

What the Yerkes-Dodson law mean exactly?

If you are performing a relatively difficult task, such as working on a speech for recitation or memorizing difficult information, your performance could be influenced by low or high arousal levels. If your arousal levels are too low then you might slack off even before starting your assignment, on the contrary, if your arousal levels are to high then it might make it difficult for you to concentrate on the information present in front of you.

On the other hand, if you are performing a simple task. Such as doing household chores, then arousal levels might not affect your performance.

Source- Emotions


Low Arousal Level

The initial stage of the inverted U model (the curve) is the low arousal level. It’s mainly associated with lack of sleep, lack of motivation, fatigue, lower body temperature and so on. This is the state of our body when we’re not expecting to perform any complex tasks. We just have low motivation to do anything. Thus, our attention mechanisms aren’t really active.

Optimum Arousal Level

Optimum arousal level is the condition of perfect balance where the individual isn’t too aroused neither under aroused, and thus the performance is also optimum for both simple and complex tasks. This is the level of peak shown in the curve. The performance level gradually increases as the curve heads towards the optimum level from the low arousal level.

High Arousal Level

This is the state when the arousal level of an individual is over the optimum balance. It’s generally associated with panic, anxiety, lower concentration, physically tensing up, inability to make decisions, over-reacting, and so on. Our ability to focus on everything happening in our surroundings diminishes as our tension levels rise up, lowering our performance. This level of arousal can be related to, “falling apart under pressure”.


Increase your control

One simple solution to lowering stress is to find more ways to increase your control over the work you do. Research suggests that leaders with higher levels of responsibility experience lower stress levels than those with less on their shoulders. This is because leaders have more control over their activities.

Find more opportunities to be authentic

Evidence suggests that people often experience feelings of inauthenticity at work. That is, they conform to the opinions of colleagues rather than voicing their own, and they go with other’s flow. When people behave in inauthentic ways, they experience higher levels of anxiety than when they are simply themselves. So, try to find ways to express who you are at work. Such as offering to share your unique talents or decorating your office to reflect who you are.

Use rituals 

Basketball superstar Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts at every game; Curtis Martin of the New York Jets reads Psalm 91 before every game; and Wade Boggs, as the third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, ate chicken before each game and took batting practice at exactly 5:17 p.m., fielded exactly 117 ground balls, and ran sprints at precisely 7:17 p.m. These rituals may sound strange, but they can actually improve performance.

A moderate amount of stress may put you in the right mindset to tackle your work.


Clearly, this law is relevant to our day to day life. It helps us understand how arousal levels affect our performance. So now when you feel a little nervous before a task, don’t worry. It will probably help you to perform your best.  

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