The Inverted-U Theory – Balance Performance & Pressure

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performance and pressure

Pressure sometimes acts as a catalyst in the process, increasing one’s performance level. Let us suppose that you work as a Sales Representative for an organisation and have been doing pretty well for yourself.

Unfortunately, in a particular quarter, it seems like the organisation will miss its quarterly target, and your manager asks you if you could bring in more sales this time.

Given the situation and slight pressure from your boss, you decide to take on this opportunity with open arms.  What happens next is that you not only meet your target but overachieve it.

image of a person in pressure of work

One can see that there is a slight relation between pressure and performance. In the same scenario, imagine if the boss would have said, “Either you meet your target or lose your job”. This kind of extreme pressure will do more harm than good as you would be spending more time worrying about losing your job instead of making strategies to meet your target.

We will learn about the  “Inverted-U theory” – also known as the “Yerkes-Dodson Law” to understand this relation in-depth.


What is the Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes–Dodson law is an empirical relationship between pressure and performance, originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. “The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point when levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. “
-Source: Wikipedia.

image of dillingham dodson
image of robert yerkes

Understanding the Inverted-U theory Curve

On the left hand, we see that Low-Pressure results in mediocrity in terms of the performance level. The lack of pressure does not push people to give their 100%, let alone “going the extra miles” to finish the task.

The middle portion indicates that the people are performing at their peak levels. Here the pressure is at the optimum level pushing people to their limits positively and not making them struggle.

On the right hand, we that under high-pressure work to perform and start to suffer from high stress, anxiety, and unhappiness. People here get overwhelmed by the demands, which are next to unrealistic requirements.

Here we can conclude that to have high-level performance; there is an optimum level of pressure that needs to be applied. Four such factors help us determine the amount of stress necessary to have a good understanding.

Factors that influence the Inverted-U theory

Like we discussed earlier that some factors influence the optimum level of pressure. We have to keep in mind that everybody is not the same, and working for one might not work for the other. These factors consider this point and help you to find the right amount of pressure. 

Skill Level: 

Whenever someone takes a new task in their hand, there is a high intrinsic motivation for the study. Eventually, with a passage of time, when the person increases his/her skill to a level to find the study easy, we witness a drop in performance level.

In such a situation arises the need to exert pressure from outside to keep the performance level up.


Different types of personalities respond positively to different levels of pressure. As per a study, an extrovert person would perform better under high pressure. Whereas an introvert person will perform better under low pressure, one needs to keep in mind that the person might already be under some sort of tension or stress due to some of the happenings in his/her private life. This is one crucial point as it can help in not putting up the person under high pressure.

Task Difficulty:  

A task of easy difficulty will require less effort and attention than a charge of hard difficulty. Let’s take the example of a Chef. It won’t be a problem if the Chef has to cook for ten people instead of 5 or 7.

Imagine if the same Chef says, let’s participate in a competition where he has to give a presentation between 100’s of people about various dishes and how he cooks. This might be a task of more incredible difficulty and would require more effort and preparation from his side. 

Trait Anxiety: 

Self-Confidence plays a significant role here. A person with high Self-Confidence is likely to perform better under a high-pressure situation than a person with low Self-Confidence. It’s because a confident person always believes in himself and his abilities. He takes on new opportunities with a positive attitude.

Whereas a non-confident person always lives under self-doubt, questioning his abilities. Before facing the task, he is more about winning or losing instead of preparing for it or looking at it as a learning opportunity.

Difference between Pressure and Stress

We often hear these statements that “I work under high pressure” or “I have a stressful job”. Generally, these two statements are the same; for them, pressure = stress. To everyone’s shock, I will say that no pressure does not equal emphasis. As per  Hendrie Weisinger:

  • Stress refers to too many demands and not enough resources – time, money, energy – to meet them.
  • The pressure is a situation in which you perceive that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance.
image of hendrie weisinger

Generally, stress is always viewed to be a negative term as compared to pressure. Stress is looked at as a situation where one is not much in control of the problem. For Example:

late meetings, long commute, too many deadlines. Now, these are the situations that are not possible to control.

On the other hand, a problem under high pressure is one you own. For Example, You have to meet a given sales target to meet. Now it’s upon you; if you put in the extra effort and are willing to go that extra mile, you’ll accomplish the target.


So after this article, I believe readers will now not see pressure always in a negative light like other people. Moreover, you can teach them how pressure can help to enhance performance. This is very useful for people who are having managerial roles as this can help them get maximum output from the team without burdening them.

Remember, the optimum level of pressure is the key here, which depends on the four factors we discussed. It’s also essential to notice that the individual might be already in some sort of stress because of his/her private life. Confusing pressure with the focus can cost us a lot, especially in terms of productivity.  So, it’s necessary to know when to utilise what.

Also, you can read our blog on 5 BEST Meditation For Stress Relief: Take a Stress Relief Break


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