“With more incentive, our performance increases, but only to a certain extent”

When we are promised a higher incentive for a better performance, we want to perform better. At low incentive levels this increased motivation pays off. We do perform better. However, at some point increasing the incentive and thereby motivation even further, starts to backfire: we perform (a lot) worse.

This Yerkes-Dodson Effect applies to mental tasks. Tasks involving cognitive effort, resulting in an inverse U graph: first performance increases with rising incentives, but only until it reaches an optimum, and then starts decreasing steeply as incentives rise further.

This effect does not apply to mechanical tasks, requiring only the control over you muscles. It does however apply to both economical and social incentives (‘social motivators’).

Scientific research example

Imagine I am asked to fit 9 metal quarters (of a circle) into a rectangle. When I succeed, I will receive 5 months worth of salary! Now you get the same challenge, but… you will receive only 1 month of salary when you solve the puzzle. A friend of yours is treated even worse: he gets a maximum of 1-day salary.

=> Now who is the least likely to solve the puzzle and get paid?

Dan Ariely found you’d perform better than your lowest-paid colleague. But, unfortunately for me, I will probably perform the worst of all…

The effect is named after Yerkes & Dodson who originally discovered this effect more than 100 years ago (1908), They put mice in a maze that changed the save and unsafe zones on a daily basis. With increasing shock intensity, the mice first learned faster, but at a certain level the performance started decreasing.

Online Persuasion tips:

When buying or using your product involves mental tasks or challenges:

  • It can help to incentivize the behavior (buying or using your products).
  • Test where the incentive-optimum lies, since too little incentives do nothing, but too large incentives may backfire.
  • Only in the case that using your product involves purely mechanical skills, it can help to provide really high incentives to stimulate usage and satisfaction.
  • Be aware that monetary incentives can move motivation from the intrinsic and social domain, to the purely financial domain, making behavior now and in the future dependent on the incentive you introduced…


Yerkes-Dodson effect

Further reading on the Yerkes-Dodson effect:

  • Dan Ariely, Uri Gneezy, George Loewenstein, and Nina Mazar (2005, working paper): Large Stakes and Big Mistakes
  • Yerkes-Dodson law on Wikipedia
  • Lupien SJ, Maheu F, Tu M, Fiocco A, Schramek TE (2007). “The effects of stress and stress hormones on human cognition: Implications for the field of brain and cognition”. Brain and Cognition 65: 209–237.