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Can Arousal Affect Your Performance? Find Out What The Yerkes-Dodson Law Says

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Do you think that arousal affects your performance in a given situation?


The Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that elevated arousal levels can improve performance, but only up to a certain point. According to the law, a little bit of stress can actually help you perform your best. However, once that arousal crosses the optimal level, your performance starts to diminish.


How the Yerkes-Dodson law works

In psychology, the relationship between arousal levels and performance is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law.


Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson first proposed the law in 1908. In their experiment, they discovered that rats could be motivated to complete a maze with slight electrical shocks. But when the shocks were of a higher degree, their performance level decreased and they just ran about seeking an escape. This experiment demonstrated that increasing stress and arousal levels helped to focus on motivation and attention on the task at hand, but only up to an optimum point. Over time they developed three levels of the law.


The three levels of Yerkes-Dodson Law

1. Low arousal level

The first stage is the low arousal level. In this stage, there is a lack of sleep, lack of motivation, fatigue, lower body temperature and so on. You can find your body in this state when you are not expecting to perform any complex tasks, or you just have low motivation to do anything. This means that your attentional mechanisms aren’t really active.


2. Optimum arousal level

Then comes the second stage. Here, an optimum arousal level creates optimum performance. It is the condition of perfect balance where you are neither too aroused nor under-aroused. This way, your performance is at a maximum level for both simple and complex tasks.


3. High arousal level

This is the state when your level of arousal individual is higher than the optimum balance. Here, you may generally feel fear, panic, anxiety, lower concentration, tense, unable to make decisions, like you’re over-reacting and so on. Your ability to focus on everything happening in the surrounding diminishes as tension levels rise up, causing lower performance. This level of arousal can be related with “falling apart under pressure”.


performance affected by arousal in the brain


The relationship between arousal and performance

Being a little nervous helps us to perform better. For example, you might do better at an athletic event if you are excited about participating or do better on an exam if you are somewhat anxious about your score.


The anxiety you may experience before an exam is an example of how the Yerkes-Dodson Law operates. A certain level of stress can help you focus on the test and remember the information that you studied. However, too much test anxiety can impair your ability to concentrate and make it more difficult to remember the correct answers.


Another example is looking at the athletic performance of an athlete. When a player is poised to make an important move, like making a basket during a basketball game, an ideal level of arousal can sharpen his performance and enable him to make the shot. When a player gets too stressed out, he might instead “choke” and miss the shot.


Achieving a balance between arousal and performance

It is a fact that different tasks require different optimal levels to achieve balance. So how do you determine the ideal arousal level?


Based on our daily activities, some tasks are much simpler than others. Some research found that performance levels decrease earlier for complex tasks than for simpler tasks even with the same levels of arousal.


Our optimal level of arousal for a complex task is higher than for a simple task. For instance, household tasks such as washing dishes are simple tasks because it does not require much attention or work. In performing simple tasks, you are capable of dealing with a larger range of arousal levels.


What this means is that you could experience either a very low or very high arousal level and still wash the dishes well. However, for a complex task such as writing a paper, which requires a high level of attention, your performance would be highly influenced by low and high arousal levels. Low arousal level might not give you enough motivation to get started on the task while too high arousal level could pose as a problem, making it difficult for you to concentrate on the information long enough to complete the task.


Using different types of athletic performance as an example, too much and too little arousal can affect the performances differently. A track sprinter does not require the highest level of arousal to perform, though he might rely on high arousal levels to motivate peak performance. However, for a basketballer, he would need to control excessive arousal in order to concentrate on successfully performing complex throws or pitches. Too little or excessive arousal would hurt his performance.


This shows that the tasks to perform plays a role in determining the optimal levels of arousal.

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