Yerkes-Dodson Law - the degree to which results depend on motivation

The Yerkes-Dodson Law explains why, by striving hard to achieve a goal, we can significantly increase the risk of failure? How can high interest in achieving the desired result play a cruel joke and become, according to the Yerkes-Dodson law, the reason that the case will be abandoned halfway? It turns out that excessive persistence and interest in the result are not always good. But why does this happen?

Discovery of the Yerkes-Dodson law

At the beginning of the last century, British psychologists Dodson and Yerkes studied the peculiarities of the movement of rats through a maze when exposed to electric shocks. At first, as its strength increased, the animals began to run across it faster. But another increase in the strength of the impulses led to an unexpected result - the time to complete the maze did not decrease, but increased.

These data have attracted particular attention from scientists. After a detailed study of the situation, it turned out that the cause of what was happening was excessive stress. It resulted in panic behavior in rats and their chaotic movement through the maze. Therefore, the time to exit it has increased significantly.

More details about the provisions of the law

The famous ancient Roman philosopher Cicero wrote: “Passion is an excessively strong movement of the soul.” And this quote is not about love relationships at all. It refers to an excess of emotion in any activity and perfectly captures the essence of the Yerkes-Dodson Law of Motivation. It is described in more detail by the following two provisions:

  • The dependence of the effectiveness of actions on the level of motivation looks like a curve in the shape of an inverted letter U. According to it, with increasing motivation, the quality of activity increases only at the beginning. After reaching optimal motivation, it begins to rapidly decline.
  • According to the Yerkes-Dodson law of optimum motivation, there is an inverse relationship between the level of sufficient motivation and the degree of difficulty of the task. To successfully achieve a difficult goal, its level must be lower than for a less difficult goal.

Four Influential Factors

The inverted U pattern is different for each person depending on the situation. In fact, there are four factors that can influence this curve: skill level, personality, trait anxiety, and task difficulty.

An individual's level of ability also influences his performance in a given task. A highly skilled person who is confident in their abilities is more likely to be able to handle high-pressure situations appropriately because they can rely on their well-rehearsed responses.

Regarding the nature of anxiety, a person's confidence also affects the way they manage any situation. A confident person is more likely to remain under pressure because they will not doubt their abilities in the same way as an insecure person.

Examples of the Yerkes-Dodson Law

Vivid examples of its manifestation include the following situations:

  • Failures of responsible excellent students in important entrance exams.
  • Failures in losing weight among people who take the matter seriously.
  • Refusals to hire people who have been thoroughly preparing for an interview for a long time.

The examples given reflect paradoxical situations in the understanding of many of us. After all, in them, result-oriented people fail due to excessive motivation. The Yerkes-Dodson Law opens up performance in a new way by emphasizing a moderate attitude. How is this possible?


Emotions and feelings that overwhelm people vary in strength and sign. The more they grip a person, the less rationally he acts. And most human affairs require rationality, including fitness.

Remember Pushkin: “The less we love a woman, the easier it is for her to like us”? Brilliantly simple, like everything fundamental! The simpler and more natural you behave with a person, the easier it is to gain his favor. This is the ABC of communication. When you need something from a person (in this case, reciprocity), this certainly leaves its mark on communication and difficulties arise, mainly of an emotional nature. These are ridiculous actions and phrases, awkwardness... And the more you need from a person, the more difficult it is to get it for the same reasons.

The situation is similar with fitness classes. If you start making lesson plans too meticulously and planning what you will eat on Thursday, September 6, 2036, events or people will certainly appear that (as luck would have it!) will violate all your intentions. And they will do it right!!!

You have to keep it simple, that’s the secret! But this approach does not justify slackers!

There is no need to look for ideal conditions to start acting. Just take action. And if it didn’t work out, something didn’t work out, then to hell with it! It will happen tomorrow. The world won't turn upside down if you miss one workout or don't have lunch on time. I checked this myself just yesterday. Did they say anything on the news about the end of the world?

True, there is one important caveat for such quite healthy indifference. You should certainly analyze with a cold mind the reasons why the mistake occurred. And don't repeat it again. So simply and with dignity, and not as usual...

How does the Yerkes-Dodson law work?

The Yerkes-Dodson law of optimal motivation helps determine a sufficient level of interest that will not interfere with achieving the desired result. But why and at what point can aspiration suddenly become a fatal obstacle?

The fact is that increasing motivation can cause unwanted emotional states. First, it stimulates an increase in tension in the subcortex of the brain. Excessively strong impulses begin to attack the cortex and provoke its diffuse excitation. As a result, feelings of anxiety, fear or worry arise that can destroy and turn into dust any plan of action.

According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, the optimal level of anxiety also plays an important role, not just motivation. It should allow a person to make informed decisions and not become a cause of panic and energy drain.


Be attentive to yourself and your feelings, try to find your own optimum and stick to it.

If you are completely unable to begin completing a task because your motivation is too low and no rewards can influence it, use the recommendations found here.

The material was prepared by psychologist, Gestalt therapist, Alina Zhuravina

Read further:

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Why you should not confuse the concepts of motivation and stimulation

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What criteria are used to determine optimal motivation?

Signs of optimal motivationSigns of loss of optimum motivation
A stable attitude in a given direction.Increasing tension, turning into nervousness.
An adequate response to what is happening, including unforeseen difficulties.Repeated errors. Replacing sincere enthusiasm with a purely strong-willed attitude.
Persistent interest in the work process.The desire to quit what you started. Increasing anxiety and fear.
Finding creative solutions to problems.Panic and inability to calmly perceive unforeseen circumstances.


On animals

In 1908, respectively, Yerkes and Dodson decided to conduct an experiment on mice to find out what effect the strength of motivation had on their performance at completely different levels of task difficulty.

The subjects had to successfully navigate the maze by initially choosing the correct entrance. If they completed the task quickly and successfully, a reward awaited them at the end, directly from an individual of the opposite sex. In extreme cases, an electric shock of completely different strength.

So, it turned out that if a small shock was given during the task, the mice would speed up, but if it was quite painful, they began to move more slowly, sometimes getting completely lost in the maze, not finding a way out.

Subsequently, a similar experiment was carried out on chimpanzees, cats and even chickens, the results of which only confirmed the theory.

In public

After presenting a group of subjects with puzzles, the experimenters offered a monetary reward for solving each problem as an incentive. Moreover, the reward, initially completely insignificant, increased several times with each completed task, gradually reaching a significant amount.

It turned out that for symbolic money people worked somehow, completely without enthusiasm. It began to grow along with the so-called salary. Labor efficiency also increased. But when the amount became unreasonably high, panic began in the group, which led to errors in work.

Using the Yerkes-Dodson Law in Practice

The Yerkes-Dodson law of optimum allows you to plan the competent achievement of a goal, determining a sufficient, but at the same time safe, level of motivation.

In workflows

Understanding optimal motivation helps managers improve the performance of their employees. Given this, they will not use pay manipulation to improve results. After all, the competition that arises because of this can cause psychological discord in the state of subordinates and deterioration in work results. Also, people in any position can intelligently approach motivation and performance based on the Yerkes-Dodson law.

In self-development

When striving for personal growth, we should not be overly persistent and burden ourselves. Remember, any change takes time and patience. In order not to give up prematurely, you should take care of keeping your motivation at a sufficient level.

In sports

Using this phenomenon, you can intelligently control your mood in physical activity. This will help prevent premature breakdowns and burnout. After all, sport requires the ability to calculate strength, and not waste it at the very beginning of the race. Experienced trainers are familiar with the concept of optimal motivation. They always help their clients maintain it for the required period.

Where to apply?

In progress

Especially if you are a leader. Most often, employers strive to reward employees as highly as possible, thinking that then they will take their work more responsibly. But later it turns out that this, on the contrary, causes them to have a negative attitude towards their responsibilities.

And the level of stress increases due to competition and tension. Emotional instability due to the excitement and excessive involvement in the process negatively affects concentration. Which subsequently leads to mistakes and even apathy. Since energy is also expended to the maximum.

For self-development

Your motivation must be optimal, otherwise you will not achieve the expected development and changes in the psychology of your personality. For example, if you want to lose weight and all your thoughts are occupied only with this idea, you won’t be able to stay on proper nutrition for long.

You will simply interfere with yourself and provoke breakdowns. Exhaustive workload and food restrictions will lead to extreme stress. Which, as you can learn from this article, brings a lot of harm to health.

You need to calm down, realize that losing weight is most likely a long process and you should carry out what you planned without fuss. Then there is a chance to feel pleasure and satisfaction, gradually seeing the desired results.

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