Don’t Get Too Aroused or You Might Blow It!

How “aroused” do you have to be to get a job done well?

“Aroused,” in this context, means incentivized or motivated, of course, not sexually aroused.

Still, it’s an interesting question, and the answer could change how you get work done.

Two researchers, Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, worked on this idea back in the early 1900s. They landed on a principle that’s now called the Yerkes–Dodson law that says there is an optimal amount of arousal needed to complete any task to the best of one’s capabilities.

Too little arousal, and you won’t do your best. Too much arousal, however, causes the same flummox.

It’s easy to believe that too little arousal won’t motivate us enough to do a good job. But too much? Think for a moment about whether you believe it. Is it possible that you might be too motivated to do something? Could too much incentive, like a really big bonus, hurt your performance?

Batting Under Pressure

It turns out that when the stakes are too high, people blow it. They choke under pressure.

In sports, particularly basketball and baseball, the phenomenon has been proven true. A study of Australian elite basketball players, for example, showed that the players sunk more free throws during practices than in games. In games, making a basket is worth more. It matters more. The stakes are higher (Dandy, 2001).

In baseball, Billy Beane is a case in point. He’s the failed player turned A’s manager whose career is partially charted in the book (and movie) Moneyball. Beane was an extraordinary piece of work on the field showing all the “tools” needed to succeed in the majors, and he was easily drafted to play with the pros. But in his 301 career at-bats, he never did much of anything at all. He was nearly as bad during his time in the minors. The theory is that when Beane got in front of all those spectator eyeballs, he just couldn’t handle it. The pressure was on, and he simply couldn’t perform at his best. He flopped. Call it performance anxiety, if you like. It’s all Yerkes–Dodson law in effect.

In both baseball and golf, there’s a little something known as getting “the yips.” The yips refers to suddenly losing all control of a fine motor skill, like putting in golf or pitching in baseball. If you’ve ever seen a pitcher throw pitch after pitch that goes no where near the plate, and he just can’t recover, that’s the yips. When you have the yips, you don’t recover. You have to leave the game and wait for another day.

Imagine the psychological distress. You’re throwing or putting just fine, and then you have a streak of two, three, four, wild pitches or putts in a row. You worry about it. The heat is on to get it right. But that makes it worse. It’s Yerkes–Dodson law. The person is aroused beyond the optimal point and can’t perform to his or her best.

What Does Yerkes–Dodson Mean for You?

So what does Yerkes–Dodson law mean for your productivity?

Think about it this way: The optimal amount of incentive for you to get a job done might be lower than what you expect. A middling incentive could actually be better for your performance than a very high one.

Some people create rewards for themselves for motivation. Let me brainstorm a few examples:
If I lose 25 pounds this year, then I’ll buy myself that Porsche I always wanted. Erm, the Porsche might be a bit much.

If I write this book I’ve been hoping and dreaming of writing, I could become a New York Times best-selling author. Are you sure that’s what you want? You’re putting an awful lot of pressure on yourself!

It’s even true with money. If your bonus is too big, it might be causing you to choke under pressure. I’m serious.

‘Large Stakes and Big Mistakes’

Two of my favorite researchers, Dan Ariely and Uri Gneezy (with a few others, 2009) ran a bunch of really cool experiments that proved that people blow it when big sums of money were up for grabs.

They called their paper “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes.” Can you tell why I like them?

In the experiments, people who were offered a modest amount of prize money if they could win various games did better at those same games than people who were offered very large sums of prize money. The experiments tested a number of different skills, from hand-eye coordination to memory. Again and again, when a person could potentially win an amount of money that was exceptionally high, that person did worse than someone who could potentially win just a little money or a more modest amount.

We all know researchers don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to pay subjects to play games, but you can certainly replicate that kind of money if you travel to the right places. These experiments were conducted in rural India, where a relatively small amount of money by American standards goes a lot farther. Study participants with the highest incentives were eligible to win “an amount approximately equal to half of the mean yearly consumer expenditure in the village.” In the U.S., half the average yearly consumer expenditure is almost $27,000!

Taking a step back, Ariely and Gneezy say there’s a lot of variability person-to-person and for the task at hand. If the task is something you’re very skilled at and have practiced before, then it’s probably all right if the incentives are on the high side. But in general, an overly big stake is more likely to lead you to blow it than a moderate one.

Think Small(er)

My recommendation to maximize productivity, based on Yerkes–Dodson law, is to think small… or at least smaller.

Any time you want to get a large task accomplish, it helps to break it into smaller component parts. Why not do the same with your rewards or incentives system?

Create modest rewards, incentives, or arousal, whether it’s something tangible or only in your head (like best-seller status). Rather than promising yourself a Porsche, maybe promise yourself a smaller sum of money that you can choose to spend or put into the Porsche fund. Maybe instead of thinking about becoming a best-seller, think about the reward of getting an agent to represent you. Creating rewards, motivation, or incentives that are nearly within reach will probably create a more modest sense of arousal than thinking about the jackpot.


Ariely, D., Gneezy, U., Loewenstein,G., & Mazar, N. (2009). Large Stakes And Big Mistakes. Review of Economic Studies, 76, 451-69.

Dandy, J., Brewer, N. & Tottman, R. (2001). Self-Consciousness and Performance Decrements Within a Sporting Context, Journal of Social Psychology, 141(1), 150–152.

Lewis, M. (2003). Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. New York: W. W. Norton.

Yerkes, R., & Dodson, J. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. J. Comp. Neurol. Psychol., 18(5), 459-482. doi:10.1002/cne.920180503

Photo by Kazuko Tozuka, CC.


4 thoughts on “Don’t Get Too Aroused or You Might Blow It!

  1. […] Zijlstra and his team think the workers developed “strategies enabling them to deal effectively with the interruptions, while actually over-compensating the potential performance decline” (163). In other words, they buckle down and increase their productivity because of the distractions. Again, the secretaries were allowed to work at their own pace and without a time limit. Other research has shown that when time limits are enforced, workers don’t react the same way at all. Maybe it’s a case of keeping the stakes at a moderate level rather than increasing them; we already know that when stakes are too high, people blow it. […]


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