Yerkes-Dodson Curve

What is the Yerkes-Dodson curve, what insights can be derived from it and what is a flow?

Individual performance

The Yerkes-Dodson curve is the graphic representation of the Yerkes-Dodson law. Robert Mearns Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, two American psychologists, discovered in 1908 that individual performance with physiological or mental excitement only increases to a certain point, but performance decreases when the level of excitement becomes too high. This process is visualized as a bell-shaped curve, sometimes referred to as an inverted U or alternatively named “the Stress Curve”.

Findings of the Yerkes-Dodson curve

The following findings can be derived from the Yerkes-Dodson curve:

  • Basically every kind of thinking is considered an excitation process. Creativity techniques such as brainstorming or brainwriting use the amplification of excitement to increase mental performance. Without excitement there is also no mental performance.
  • The ascending part of the curve can be traced back to a positive arousal and the descending part to a negative arousal – in other words: stress.
  • With increasing excitement and commitment, the productivity of an individual initially increases, but only up to the performance optimum at the apex of the curve. After the performance optimum, productivity decreases.
  • The course of the Yerkes-Dodson curve is determined by a reference to the concrete task. In simple, easy to learn or repetitive tasks, performance improves with increasing excitement. For complex, difficult and new tasks, the relationship between excitation and performance reverses after one point, and performance decreases with increasing excitation.
  • The Yerkes-Dodson curve is individual for each person. It can be flat, pointed or round, symmetrical or asymmetrical. It is important to realize that both the resilience and susceptibility to stress as well as the optimum performance are different for each individual.


Yerkes-Dodson Curve aka the Stess Curve

The vertex of the Yerkes-Dodson curve

As a result of the findings of Yerkes and Dodson, numerous books, magazines and blogs offer tips and tricks for increasing arousal – also known as activation – or reducing stress. Some advisers try to increase the performance optimum, others try to increase the time span in the range of the maximum performance. At the apex of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, the individual as such appears to be both happiest and most powerful. This condition is often referred to as flow.

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