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Yerkes-Dodson Law: Motivation and Performance


Yerkes-Dodson law covers the concept of motivation in its relation to performance. It links the feeling of arousal with the actual conduct of a person or another living being. According to this law, intensive motivation and stimulation negatively affect human effectiveness while moderate psychological arousal is considered the most optimal level of motivation and it ensures that better results can be achieved. The purpose of this paper is to examine and describe the aspects of the law specified by Yerkes and Dodson.

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The two scientists proved that the optimum level of motivation changes by the difficulty of the task. In 1908, the researchers experimented on animals (cats, rats, and other species) to determine how their productiveness would change based on the intensity of a stimulator (electric current). It is important that the results obtained were the same for all groups of participants (Freeman et al., 2013). In the experiment on rats, the animals had to complete a maze. This task had three levels of complexity and three levels of motivation (weak, moderate, or intense electric shock for an error committed).

According to the results of the study, excessive activation (arousal) negatively affected rats’ effectiveness leading to their disorganization, disorientation, and lack of concentration. When the intense electric current was applied to them, the rats started running chaotically to find a way out instead of selecting one of the paths. Based on the outcomes of the study, the team of scientists determined the optimum level of motivation (Freeman et al., 2013). It should be noted that it was difficult to gather the necessary data to confirm this theory due to the complex nature of emotions. The first researches in this area did not center on emotions, but they allowed putting forward a hypothesis about the relationship between the arousal index and the quality of performance.

Other experts in the field also discussed the empirical generalization made by the two scientists. Many researchers and scholars have hypothesized that excessive fears experienced by a person lead to a loss of control over their behavior. Many psychologists assumed that intensive stimulation negatively affects the effectiveness of people and does not allow them to adapt to the task in the most effective way (Freeman et al., 2013). Pierson also argued that emotions were characterized by a strong diffuse reactivity, and they went beyond the responses that would adequately correspond to the feeling of arousal. Consequently, he noted a particular violation of adaptation in a person who was under severe stress (Barkway, 2013). Other scientists confirmed this assumption concluding that people became more disorganized in a state when arousal was too intense. Yerkes and Dodson experimentally proved the veracity of such judgments through research into the behavior of animals.

Based on the results of experiments, the researchers made two important conclusions. First, they found that there was a certain level of optimum motivation that was necessary for the effective completion of activities. Second, the necessary level of motivation was associated with an inverse relationship with the level of difficulty of the task (Barkway, 2013). Thus, the more difficult the task is, the lower should be the level of motivation. For instance, to effectively solve a problem of high complexity, a person should have a weak motivation while to complete a simple task, he or she should have a strong motivation to be effective (Leigh, 2013). In the case of a simple task, strong motivation will not affect the individual’s ability for self-control and will not lead to violations in his or her behavior, but when performing complex tasks, a backlash will be observed.

Important Aspects and Law Applicability

It is crucial to note that the optimal level of motivation is individual for each person since the same factors can have a different impact and significance for different people. In the instance of experiments conducted by Yerkes and Dodson, the effectiveness of learning changed due to increasing levels of anxiety and fear of punishment (Leigh, 2013). However, these criteria vary for each person. It is necessary to mention that the researchers investigated goal-driven behavior. Therefore, they studied the feeling that underlay certain conduct. Further researches allowed concluding intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The first one drives the behavior itself and the second one is related to a form of conduct, which is employed to receive a reward or avert penalty (Leigh, 2013). These important experimentally proved assumptions are used in psychology and nursing to manage patients’ motivation and health-related choices. Also, this law can be applied to such areas as marketing, human resource management, sports, and many others, which imply human decision-making and the process of rationalization.


Thus, it can be concluded that Yerkes-Dodson law covers two theories regarding the levels of motivation and arousal and their positive effect on human activity. Researchers have proved that an increased level of arousal negatively affects decision-making and problem-solving skills due to an increase in the level of activity and tension experienced by an individual. In their turn, they cause disruptions in the person’s behavior. For any type of task, there is a certain optimal level of motivation. When this level is exceeded, the feeling of arousal starts adversely affecting goal achievement.

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Barkway, P. (2013). Psychology for health professionals (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Elsevier.

Freeman, C., Barter, C., Fennell, M., Cooper, P., Shafran, R., Egan, S., & Wade, T. (2013). The complete guide to overcoming eating disorders, perfectionism and low self-esteem. London, UK: Hachette.

Leigh, H. (2013). The patient: Biological, psychological, and social dimensions of medical practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.

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