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From law to folklore: work stress and the Yerkes-Dodson Law

Martin Corbett (School of Management, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK)

Journal of Managerial Psychology

ISSN: 0268-3946

Article publication date: 10 August 2015




The purpose of this paper is to examine how a speculative animal behaviour modification experiment conducted over 100 years ago evolved into a scientific law of human behaviour that is now widely cited in managerial psychology texts and journals. The paper considers the implications of this evolution for the theory and practice of work stress management in particular, and managerial psychology in general.


Using insights from social constructivist studies of science the empirical evidence supporting the Yerkes-Dodson Law (YDL) is examined and found wanting. The role played by the simple graphical representation of the YDL in its popularisation is considered.


Analysis reveals that the YDL has no basis in empirical fact but continues to inform managerial practices which seek to increase or maintain, rather than minimise, levels of stress in the workplace as a means to enhance employee performance.

Practical implications

Practitioners should not seek to increase performance through the manipulation of employee stress levels.


The paper brings attention to the potentially harmful ways the publication of long-discredited models of stress and performance can influence management practice.



Corbett, M. (2015), "From law to folklore: work stress and the Yerkes-Dodson Law", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 30 No. 6, pp. 741-752.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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