Y is for… Yerkes–Dodson law

The Psychologist A to Z continues.

Suggested by Nick Hoyle, OU Psychology Student and HCPC Registered Operating Department Practitioner. 

‘According to the Yerkes–Dodson law, optimal/peak performance occurs at an intermediate level of arousal. Too little or too much pressure, and performance declines. Think of the coolness of Roger Federer, who seems to know where his optimal level is. It’s an interesting model and one I plan to explore further both within sport and the workplace.’

In his 2016 British Academy/British Psychological Society lecture, Ian Robertson spoke of the ‘sweet spot’ in terms of the Yerkes–Dodson law: ‘thoughts, perceptions, actions, are beautifully represented because there’s just the right amount of background noise.’ If you’re low on the curve, stress or challenge pushes you into the sweet spot. If you’re already there, it’s only downhill. 

Writing in June 2015, leading neurosurgeon Henry Marsh said: ‘Can one teach wisdom, empathy and judgement? Can you force surgeons to look down? Will they just develop severe vertigo and learn nothing (just as the dancing mice in the Yerkes–Dodson experiments failed to learn if the electric shock was very strong)?’

In our May 2014 feature on ‘psychologists who rock’, Ian Deary – front man with ‘Dancing Mice (coincidentally!)’ – warned of the dangers of over-arousal: ‘In the band we all notice that, when we start recording, even things that we have played flawlessly several times will suddenly go awry: the red light pushes us to the wrong part of the Yerkes–Dodson curve.’

- Find our almost-complete A to Z here.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber