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Performance And The Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law suggests that performance increases with mental arousal (stress) but only up to a point: when an individuals’ level of stress is too low or too high, their performance deteriorates. This handout provides an overview of the Yerkes-Dodson Law. It describes the ways in which excessive effort can be unnecessary and unhelpful when working towards goals. It also introduces the idea of experimenting with one’s ‘zone of optimal performance’ and approaching tasks more flexibly.

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  • English (GB)
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  • Polish

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Introduction & Theoretical Background

The Yerkes-Dodson Law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908) is a well-known finding in the psychology literature. In summary, the law suggests that performance increases with mental arousal (stress) but only up to a point. When an individuals’ level of stress is too low or too high, their performance deteriorates. This relationship between stress and performance is usually depicted as an inverted U-shaped curve. 

Egan and colleagues (2014) recommend sharing the Yerkes-Dodson Law with perfectionistic individuals because of their dislike for inefficiency and wasted effort. The law also has important implications for overcoming perfectionistic striving:

  • The law suggests that putting too much effort into tasks may be unnecessary (at best) and counterproductive (at worst).
  • Perfectionistic striving and the stress associated with it increases the risk of inaccurate and inefficient performance (Ishida, 2005; Stoeber, 2011).
  • People with perfectionism might achieve the same (or better) results if they approach activities in a less effortful and pressurized manner.
  • Individuals benefit from finding their ‘zone of optimal performance’, which is likely to lie outside of the boundaries of perfectionistic striving.

The Performance And The Yerkes-Dodson Law handout provides an overview of the Yerkes-Dodson Law. It describes the ways in which excessive effort can be unnecessary and unhelpful when working towards goals. The handout also introduces the idea of experimenting with one’s ‘zone of optimal performance’ and approaching tasks more flexibly.

Therapist Guidance

Psychologists have conducted a lot of research to find out what makes people perform at their best.
  • Can you think of any times where you put too much effort into doing something?
  • Can you think of any times where you didn’t put enough effort into doing something?
  • What are the pros and cons of putting in so much effort into the activities you care about?
  • When does striving become unnecessary and unhelpful? How do you know when you’ve reached that point?
  • How could you find out where your zone of optimal performance is? Would you be willing to experiment with how you approach things?

References And Further Reading

  • Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., Shafran, R., & Antony, M. M. (2014). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. Guilford.
  • Ishida, H. (2005). College students’ perfectionism and task-strategy inefficiency: Why their efforts go unrewarded? The Japanese Journal of Social Psychology, 20, 208-215.
  • Shafran, R., Cooper, Z., & Fairburn, C. G. (2002). Clinical perfectionism: A cognitive-behavioral analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40, 773-791.
  • Shafran, R., Egan, S., & Wade, T. (2010). Overcoming perfectionism: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioral techniques. Constable and Robinson.
  • Stoeber, J. (2011). Perfectionism, efficiency, and response bias in proof-reading performance: Extension and replication. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 426-429.
  • Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.