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The Yerkes-Dodson law demonstrates an empirical relationship between arousal and performance. It dictates that performance increases with cognitive arousal but only to a certain point: when levels of arousal become too high, performance will decrease. A corollary is that there is an optimal level of arousal for a given task.
The process is often demonstrated graphically as an inverted U-shaped curve, increasing and then decreasing with higher levels of arousal.
It has been proposed that different tasks may require different levels of arousal. For example, difficult or intellectually demanding tasks may require a lower level of arousal for optimal performance to facilitate concentration, whereas tasks demanding stamina or persistence may be performed better with higher levels or arousal (to increase motivation).
The effect of the difficulty of tasks later on lead to the hypothesis that the Yerkes-Dodson-Law can be decomoposed into two distinct factors: The upward part of the converted U can be thought of as the energizing effect of arousal. The downward part on the other hand is caused by negative effects of arousal (or stress) on cognitive processes, like attention ("tunnel vision"), memory and problem-solving.
There has been research indicating that the correlation suggested by Yerkes and Dodson exists (such as that of Broadhurst, 1959; Duffy, 1962; Anderson, 1988) but a cause of the correlation has not yet successfully been established (Anderson, Revelle and Lynch, 1989).
Despite some evidence existing in contrast to it, the law is generally respected.
References & Bibliography
- 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 Full text
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