Yerkes-Dodson law – Intro to Psychology
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Yerkes-Dodson law – Intro to Psychology

The next model we’re going to discuss, is the Yerkes-Dodson Law. So the Yerke-Dodson Law states that moderate levels of arousal, lead to optimal performance. So think back to our lesson on consciousness, where we talked about our levels of awareness. At one side of the continuum, we were unconscious, so in a coma, and we had zero awareness. And at the other end of the continuum. We are fully awake and aware. So, the idea here is somewhat similar. Except, instead of having awareness on a continuum, we have our level of arousal on a continuum. Like you see here, we go from low levels of arousal to high levels of arousal. And we also have quality of performance from low to high. So the idea here, is that we prefer to be in situations that are neither over-stimulating or under-stimulating. For example, over here when you’re highly aroused, you’d be panicked. And you probably wouldn’t perform very well. And around here you’d probably have a lot of anxiety and again, your performance wouldn’t be that great. And a little higher up, we’d see stress where often the level of performance would still be decreasing when we’re under stress, but we are highly aroused. Here we’d be mildly aware. You’re awake, but not really into whatever we’re doing. A little farther down, we’d see boredom and finally towards the bottom is where we’d find sleep. So we really want to be in this central area, for the optimal level of performance. We see these as important not only for things like academics. This could even be like for playing sports. So say you’re playing hockey or soccer. You don’t want to have too high of a level of arousal because then you’re going to be panicked to have a lot of anxiety. Which will decrease your performance. But, you also don’t want to be really bored or kind of tired and not really there. You want to be in this middle zone. That way, you can perform your very best.


  • AJ Marr

    Why the Yerkes-Dodson law is false

    The Yerkes-Dodson law, in this video and indeed as represented throughout psychology, has nothing to do with the original work performed by Yerkes and Dodson, and is a falsehood.

    The problem though is that the Yerkes-Dodson law has little if anything to do with Yerkes or Dodson, and may be rephrased to demonstrate correlations for many different psychological states. As the psychologist Karl Teigen put it: " In its original form as published in 1908, the law was intended to describe the relation between stimulus strength and habit-formation for tasks varying in discrimination difficultness. But later generations of investigations and textbook authors have rendered it variously as the effects of punishment, reward, motivation, drive, arousal, anxiety, tension or stress upon learning, performance, problem-solving, coping or memory; while the task variable has been commonly referred to as difficulty, complexity or novelty, when it is not omitted altogether. These changes are seldom explicitly discussed, and are often misattributed to Yerkes and Dodson themselves. The various reformulations are seen as reflecting conceptual changes and current developments in the areas of learning, motivation and emotion, and it is argued that the plasticity of the law also reflects the vagueness of basic psychological concepts in these areas."

    In other words, the Yerkes-Dodson law approaches meaninglessness because it is merely a taxonomy for a lot of meanings that if patched together can result in nice smooth bell curves. Nonetheless, relationships or correlations between demand and arousal are useful, and are the stuff of the daily heuristics or rules of thumb that we use to guide our lives. However, correlations themselves may not suggest explanations, and can indeed impede or obscure them. Many of the relationships we perceive are obviously spurious because they have no conceivable explanation, and even if ‘explained’ by inferred forces or processes, repeat observations would dissuade us of their reliability. For example, rising hemlines may correlate with rising stock prices for a period of months, and may be explained by the conjecture that stock brokers are emotionally perked up at the sight of a more revealing female dress, but observations over the long-term view dispel them. On the other hand, other relationships not only provide strong and consistent correlations, but allow us to quickly determine explanations. For example, a day of continuous rainfall correlates with flooding, but because we know the simple metaphors of hydraulics, we can easily move from correlation to explanation by understanding how collecting rain water causes floods. Correlations are still strong when you take a few steps back and enfold a primary cause or causes into a more encompassing taxonomy or classification that may at turns reflect meanings that are clear or obscure. For example, you can say that bad weather causes flooding, but ‘bad weather’ suggests the causes of flooding, namely excessive rainfall. In this case, the explanation for bad weather is preserved. However, the taxonomy of demand or for arousal does not suggest its components, and in fact obscures them. That is, the independent measure of demand and the dependent measure of arousal signify disparate processes (e.g., anxiety, interest, and challenge) that denote no clearly defined constituent parts; hence the meaning or semantics of demand and arousal are vague or obscure. Of course, it can be helpful to be vague. It’s simple, gets attention, makes a model that has some face validity, and it serves you well as a rule of thumb unless you want to make some specific prediction. That’s when the model becomes inconsistent and fails, and it becomes incumbent to define your terms.

    Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18: 459–482.
    Teigen, K. (1994) Yerkes-Dodson, A Law for All Seasons. Theory and Psychology 4, 525-547

    More on the Yerkes-Dodson law and other spurious models for behavior on p.56-80 of the ebook of rest, affect, and the unlikely laws that hold them up:

  • Frode Lund

    No, no, nooo! This is a myth. It’s a folk model, and has nothing to do with the original experiment. The original results, using poorly calibrated electrical shocks on mice, didn’t even produce a curve, and the mice sure as hell did not get the chance to explain their performance to the researchers.

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