Saturday, 26 July 2014

Michael Jamieson and the Yerkes-Dodson rollercoaster

Michael Jamieson is a Scottish swimmer who was tipped for gold (by Adrian Moorhouse and Rebecca Adlington) in the 200m breaststroke at the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Jamieson also declared that he was aiming for a new world record. On the day, however, he was out-swum by fellow Scot, Ross Murdoch. Could the high expectations and amount of stress Jamieson was under have prevented him from achieving his full potential?


In 1908 Robert Yerkes and John Dodson wrote a paper entitled: "The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation". Using 40 "dancer" mice, a choice of two chambers and electric shocks of varying intensity, Yerkes and Dodson made an interesting discovery. As they increased the shock intensity the mice would learn faster which chamber to avoid. But only up to a point. Past this point the increase in shock intensity had a detrimental effect on the retention of this information.

The Yerkes-Dodson theory has been applied to human performance under stress. This means that people have an optimum point of stress and retention of learning. The optimum point is the plateau of the curve but each person will have different curves based on their personalities, experience and expertise.

The Yerkes-Dodson curve has also been shown to apply when we compare stress (or arousal) with performance (rather than habit-formation). Once the optimum point has been reached, then the greater the stress, the poorer the performance

The alternative route

The "original" U-shapes (top 2)
and the "easy task" bottom line
There is a slight addition to the Yerkes-Donaldson rollercoaster, the little-discussed, alternative sigmoidal route, which is based on the difficulty of the task. If the chambers were designed so that it would be difficult for the mice to distinguish between them, then the above findings held true. However, if it was very easy to distinguish between the two chambers then the higher the shock intensity, the faster the habit formation. This is shown in the graph as the bottom-most line. This means that, for simple tasks, the more stressed/aroused you are the faster you will learn/perform.

Relevance to simulation

If the Yerkes-Dodson theory is true then the amount of stress we expose our participants to will affect their learning and performance. Either too little or too much stress will have a negative impact. Likewise, as the task becomes more complex, the higher the likelihood that we will push the participant onto the downward slope. We must therefore design our courses with this knowledge in mind.
In addition, we must appreciate that inter-professional courses and courses which simultaneously feature both junior and senior staff are more likely to have a wider spread of curves. This means that the scenarios must be designed to stress the different healthcare personnel appropriately and not aim for the lowest common denominator.

Lastly, the Yerkes-Dodson theory can be applied to your facilitators as well. Too little challenge and they'll fall asleep, too much and they'll perform poorly. We need to make sure that we match the facilitators to the participants and have back-up available if needed.

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