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yerkes dodson stress and performance

Yerkes Dodson Law: How stress can affect performance positively

Today, 4th November 2015 is the 17th national stress awareness day. Much of what is available on the internet about stress is about how to avoid it. The assumption is that stress = bad. But is that really the case?

For some people of course an overload of stress is unhelpful. But the focus on stress always being bad is in itself bad. There is such a thing as good stress, called eustress. Have you ever heard that being talked about? The term eustress was first coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye and can be helpful in differentiating between different types of stress.

A certain amount of stress, eustress, is good for you. Eustress can be a great motivator, provide challenge and purpose, both at work and in our home lives. The difficult thing is defining how much is good for you. It is different for different people. The level of stress I may be able to endure could be significantly different from the level you can cope with. It is also situational; we have different coping abilities and mechanisms in different situations. For instance a shouty work colleague may upset someone far more on one day than on another depending on what is going on elsewhere in their lives. Or the computer failing to pick up emails may be a blessing on one day allowing you to get on with other tasks, but a high stressor on another day when you are expecting an important contract to come through electronically.

The strategies for coping with stress, whether eustress or distress, are also varied. Mindfulness, meditation, playing squash (or other sport), walking or talking are all useful strategies. And there are many more. But remember, some stress is good for you and can help you achieve your goals. As can be seen in the Yerkes–Dodson curve when dealing with a difficult task, there is an optimum performance level. How will you achieve yours?

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Your thinking strategies affect your performance

There is a general assumption in Western society that optimism is best, that happiness is something to be achieved and that looking on the bright side is the right thing to do.

But optimism has been likened to red wine by researchers Puri and Robinson; a glass a day can be good for you, but a bottle a day can be hazardous.  Here’s why…

 

There’s an extent to which being optimistic and looking on the bright side is good for you, but also times and circumstances where it’s not.  I’ll discuss the wonderful issue of happiness another time… here I’m going to focus on optimism and the benefits and drawbacks for both personal health, well-being and in business.

The Good News

Research has shown that having a generally optimistic disposition, a tendency to look on the bright side, has its benefits.  Optimists are more likely to live longer, recover faster from surgery, have greater coping strategies with strong social networks, and feel happier than those with a pessimistic outlook.

Optimism and Goals

Optimism, or holding an optimistic bias as Tali Sharot termed it in her book, The Optimism Bias, has some drawbacks.  Research has shown that optimism often means tendency to underestimate the likelihood of negative events occurring in the future.  This can lead to behaviour which is detrimental to achieving your goals.  In one study, optimistic participants were inclined to stop persevering at a difficult task sooner than pessimistic participants.  A possible explanation is that optimists generally have a more positive mood.  Evidence suggests that people in a positive mood will act to preserve that mood.  So if you have a difficult task to delegate at work, don’t give it to the most positive person in your team!

Giving feedback to an optimist may also be a challenge.  In studies, optimists recalled feedback about their performance as significantly more positive than it actually was.  They also assumed they had less to improve in relation to their performance.  So don’t be surprised if some of your staff or colleagues don’t hear the feedback you give them; their brains are selectively discounting the information… they are not consciously ignoring you!

Defensive Pessimism and Performance

This is a type of pessimism which, when used effectively, helps people achieve goals, perform well and reduce anxiety.  Rather than a general pessimistic, Eeyore-type outlook, defensive pessimism as identified by Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor, is a strategy employed by some people to prepare for all eventualities.  When facing a difficult task or situation, the defensive pessimist will think through all the things that could go wrong and how they will feel if those events occur.  They then, and this is the crucial bit, put strategies in place to try to ensure the negative events don’t happen.  I notice this in myself when I am preparing for a presentation or workshop… what if I can’t get into the building, what if the computer doesn’t work, what if my slides won’t load, what if I forget what I want to say, what difficult questions might I be asked?  Then I take steps to phone up the venue to check the access times, put my slides onto a data stick and into Dropbox, put my laptop in the car and think through the questions and my likely responses… all “just in case”!

Don’t stop someone playing through their “what if” scenarios.  If someone well-meaning tries to help a defensive pessimist think on the bright side by telling them not to worry, to look at what will go right, performance can be negatively affected.  So saying to me “don’t worry, you’ve given hundreds of presentations and that’s never happened” isn’t at all helpful, even though it’s meant to be reassuring.  Equally a defensive pessimist shouldn’t encourage someone with a strong optimistic disposition to think about what might go wrong.  They will perform worse too!  So it’s a case of recognise the differences and ‘vive le difference’.

Would you like to increase your levels of optimism?

You can give your optimism a boost by noticing and logging three good things each day (these may be small such as there was no queue for at the coffee machine, or the bus was on time, to larger more significant things such as we won the contract, or I submitted my data on time and the boss was pleased with the results).  Another way is to list the goals you want to achieve and write a description of yourself and how you want your life to look in a few months or years and review this every-so-often.

In summary:

A good level of optimism is beneficial to health and well-being.

Too much optimism can result in ignoring crucial information

Allow people to think through their “what if” scenarios if they need to

 

References and useful Links

Find out whether you are a Defensive Pessimist

Buy The Positive Power of Negative Thinking by Julie Norem

Research articles by Norem & Cantor and Tali Sharot,