The Inverted U Hypthesis: An Overview


Psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson developed a hypothetical law that relates arousal with performance in 1908, based on biopsychology and neuroscience research. This is called the Inverted-U hypothesis.

The theory says that as the arousal of an athlete increases, so does the performance. It will continue to increase until it reaches its peak. After that, if the arousal continues, the performance deteriorates. This hypothesis explains how the person’s arousal can affect its performance. It tells that a person’s performance can be maximized on a certain level of arousal. But the relationship between the level of performance and the level of arousal comes with the condition; both too low and too high level of arousal can produce low level or poor performance, while a moderate level of arousal can produce a high positive level of performance.

This theory is illustrated on a diagram with two lines representing the arousal and the performance levels. The lower straight line represents the arousal level. This line labeled with Low on the start, Medium on the middle, and High on the end. The higher curved line represents the level of performance, with both ends are the lowest and the middle point is the highest. This explains and illustrate the level of performance matching the level of arousal, and thus, calling it the Inverted-U hypothesis.

This is often linked to another theory called drive theory (Hull, 1943). This theory states that performance = drive x habit strength.

How does it vary among Athletes, Sports, and Skills

The theory also suggests that the best level of arousal may vary on different activities. While physical activities that demands for stamina requires high level of arousal to produce a positive high level of performance,  tasks that requires for deep thinking and logic that demands for concentration and analysis will need a lower level of arousal to produce a high performance.

This arousal-performance theory can be demonstrated on a simple and more practical explanation. For example, an athlete who has a desire to capture the tournament title will have the arousal to achieve his goal. This arousal will push him to perform better. We often hear on sports commentators that “the championship is for the one who have the heart” or we choose the team that could possibly win the title because they are ‘hungry for Championships’. The ones who desires most is the one who will have the arousal to win and this arousal will enable athletes to perform on the maximum level.

On the low level of desire and passion, athletes perform poorly. It is because they have a low level of arousal that triggers better performance.

However, a high level of arousal could also produce a low level or poor performance for athlete. This could be because of a distress or a pressure that an athlete experiences. This high level of arousal may come from a pressure from the team management, desperately improving team standing, being disoriented or disorganized, etc. A pressure to meet the superior’s standards can produce high level of arousal and this high level of arousal could lead to poor performance.

On the contrary, people on white-collar jobs can perform best on a minimum level of arousal. This is because academic tasks don’t require a high level of arousal for a person to function effectively. For jobs that require analysis, a high level of arousal may cause stress and could result in disorganization and loose of focus.

Arousal plays a vital role on learning theories. It is related with other major factors such as motivation, stress, attention and anxiety.

People often have a negative impression with anxiety. But little do we know that a lot of things were made possible because of anxiety. It is a common belief that anxieties should be eliminated for us to perform better on our activities such as sports and other physical activities. There are three different kinds of anxieties:

Reality Anxiety

This is the fear of danger that alerts our system on occurrences danger. This one is the kind of anxiety that produce positive results. This also motivates athletes to win the game, this fuel us to exert more effort and release more energy that is needed to perform better for physical activities.

Superhuman abilities are also a result of reality anxiety. News about mothers lifting a car to save her kid or fireman going in and out of a burning building 10 times to save a children, and many other news about people defying gravity are all results of the fear of the consequence when an action is not performed. The body produces insurmountable amount of energy whenever it is needed. The brain also produces an anesthesia that allows the body to perform the action without feeling pain, it is often called ‘adrenaline’.

Moral Anxiety

Moral anxiety is not really physically related. It is the fear of violating moral code.  Commission of an action that is deemed ‘wrong’ results in guilt and shame.

Neurotic Anxiety

This is the fear of things that don’t exist. This is also often called Paranoia.

Anxiety, even when it is negatively perceived, is vital in an athlete’s life. Without anxiety, there would be no urge for innovation, thus, there would be no inventions, there would be no motivation to go to school and learn, there would be no motivation to work in order to support living.

Weaknesses of Inverted-U

Inverted theory has been highly adapted but also highly criticized because it seems to oversimplify the connection between anxiety and performance. The simplified explanation is attractive because it is easily understood and it seems to offer a concrete connection between the two, otherwise, abstract concept.

However, the oversimplification isn’t exactly quantifiable. These U is a concept but there are no gauges that would allow an athlete to determine when the peak of arousal is reached. The result is not different than any other psychological strategies. Everything becomes an estimate. Everything boils down to predictive validity.

There is also the issue of the having to rely on a one dimensional definition of anxiety. Considering this definition has already evolved and reinterpreted, there seems to not ground for its validity. Davidson and Schwartz (1976) stated that anxiety is a negative emotion that pushes the athlete to perform below the optimum level. Hardy and Fazey (1987), came up with the ‘catastrophe’ model which traces how the relationship of cognitive anxiety and physiological arousal can result to a catastrophic performance when both factors reached its peak at the same time.

Technically, the theory states that it is possible for every athlete to experience sudden breakdown or collapse of performance right after reaching a peak. The theory states that sustaining the peak is not possible. Hence, the only way for an athlete to continue performing well in a game is to hold back until the very end. Otherwise, there will be a breakdown from which it will be impossible to come back from.

Baumeister (1984) believes that the decline of an athlete’s performance in a game is not about the continuous supply of arousal but because of mental reasons. There are athletes that become self-conscious when all eyes are on them. Fitts and Poner (1967) supported this claim by breaking down the self-consciousness to three stages. First, the athlete articulates the improvement in the performance and swiftly goes into the second stage when it becomes natural. That’s when basketball players shoot  3-point shots consecutively or a tennis players going on a rallye.

However, when this performance becomes noticeable, the athlete reverts back to being a newcomer in his sport (Baumeister, 1984). The knowledge that people are noticing breaks the momentum because what is supposedly instinctive is becoming cognitive. Deikman (1969) called this the ‘deautomatisation’. Supporting studies (Hardy et al., 1996; Masters, 1992) show that many athletes playing a game for the first time are more likely to perform well than when they do after being coached to adapt certain scientific strategies.


Inverted U’s strength is also its weakness. It offers an explanation on why athletes experience a slump right after experiencing the peak of their performance. However, it does not offer an explanation on why it doesn’t always happen when the model is a sweeping generalization.

It also seems a non-actionable hypothesis. There are no variable that athletes can move or change in order to help the improvement of the athlete’s performance. It states that when the arousal has reached its peak, it will be followed by a slump. That is the universal and perpetual truth. No variables can be altered, replaced or kept in order to carry on the performance.