The Arc of Performance
Pressure promotes performance. Optimal levels of pressure promote optimal performance. The right amount of information requiring processing, tasks to be completed and a perception of challenge leads to a state of peak mental arousal with improved dexterity, reaction times and cognitive ability. Excessive cognitive load, emotional reactions and stress induced activation of our sympathetic nervous system are however detrimental to our ability to perform in high pressure situations.
In order to perform well under pressure it is important for us to understand the relationship between pressure and performance.
In 1908 two psychologists, Yerkes and Dodson, conducted an experiment examining the effects of pressure by placing mice in a maze(1). They measured how long it took the mice to reach the centre of the maze. Without any external stimuli, the mice would eventually meander their way to the middle. The researchers then started giving the mice low voltage electric shocks when they took a wrong turning. This simulated a moderate level of pressure. With low voltage shocks the ability of the mice to move quickly to the centre of the maze, taking the correct turns, improved. However, when the voltage was increased further, i.e. the stimuli experienced by the mice increased beyond a certain point, the mice began to move around frantically. With high levels of stimulus their behaviour became erratic and their ability to get to the centre of the maze deteriorated.
From this experiment, the Yerkes-Dodson law or the “inverted-U” theory of pressure and performance has since been developed. Some also describe the relationship as an arc (2). I like to think of the graphical relationship of performance and pressure as the arc of performance.
Leading psychologist and author Daniel Goleman (2) describes the arc:
“The relationship of stress to performance captured in the Yerkes-Dodson law shows that boredom and disengagement trigger too little of the stress hormones…and performance lags. As we get more motivated and engaged, good stress brings us to the optimal zone, where we perform at our best.”
On the performance arc three states of performance ability in relation to the level of pressure are recognised: disengagement, flow and frazzle.
With low levels of stimulation our performance ability is low. This state, on the left side of the arc, is known as disengagement. When disengaged our stress hormone levels are minimal and we experience low levels of stimulation, motivation and arousal.
This low performance state of disengagement can be applied to individuals and teams. It can even be applied to whole organisations with ineffective leadership and low levels of motivation. Maintaining sufficient levels of stimulation and arousal to avoid disengagement is fundamental to maintaining optimal performance.
With increasing levels of cognitive load, motivation and pressure, our performance improves. We become more aroused and our attention more focussed. Our mental processing and physical abilities improve. Our decision making, innovative ability and psychomotor ability increase to an optimal level. With increasing stimulation, our minds become engaged with the task in hand. We achieve a state of optimal arousal and optimal performance. Psychologists refer to this state of arousal, motivation and optimal performance as the state of flow (2,3,4,5). When in flow our bodies secrete low levels of stress hormones. These hormones create a state of arousal and focussed attention (2). We perceive the situation as a challenge: it is difficult, but we have confidence that we have the knowledge, skills and resources required to achieve a safe and favourable outcome.
Flow was first described by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in a publication in 1990 (5). He described the state as:
“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Flow is when we are professionally at our best. We are capable of making the most accurate decisions. Our ability to undertake physical tasks is efficient, fast and safe. We communicate effectively with the rest of the team and make the best use of assistance available from our colleagues in dealing with the situation. When we are in a state of flow our abilities to innovate and to plan are at their highest.
Flow is the zone where we, and our teams, strive to achieve the highest levels of performance. The state of flow is a pleasant, even desirable, state of being. It’s often the result of years of experience, learning and knowledge acquisition. We know we’re handling the problem as well as anyone else in our field of expertise. The performance sweet spot is partly what attracts individuals to high pressure professions.
Goleman describes our cognitive abilities when in the zone of flow as:
“a state of maximum cognitive efficiency. Getting into flow lets you use whatever talent you may have at peak levels.” (2)
High performance is about attaining and maintaining the state of flow. Maintenance of flow is achieved by managing the pressures experienced by individuals and teams. Flow is about owning the pressure. Systems allowing us to own the pressure to attain and maintain a state of flow are the goal of highly performing organisations. If we have the ability to own the pressure and use it to our advantage, we can achieve high performance under pressure.
Further increases in pressure and cognitive load, beyond the state of flow, however start to impair our ability. When the cognitive load increases, our limited cognitive capacity is exceeded and we become overloaded. Our brains cannot process the large volumes of information being generated by the situation and we can fail to make accurate decisions.
When the pressure becomes excessive we can also develop negative emotional responses. In the state of flow, we perceive the situation we are facing as a challenge. With focussed effort we see the challenge as surmountable. With increasing pressure however, our emotional brain starts to change its perception from one of challenge to one of threat. This is turn causes the development of a stress response. The hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released by our adrenal glands and are rapidly spread through our bloodstream as part of a system known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
This state of excessive pressure, cognitive overload and stress is referred to as frazzle. In a state of frazzle, we find it difficult to make accurate judgements, communicate effectively or complete practical procedures efficiently.
When we reach this zone of frazzle our insight into our own psychological state is impaired. We find it difficult to rationally appraise the circumstances we’ve found ourselves in and may lose perspective of the situation. Without having practised suitable coping strategies in advance, it is likely to be impossible for us to regain our composure and control of the situation. When we find ourselves in a state of frazzle it is possible for us to develop a negative feedback cycle i.e. the more overwhelmed we feel, the greater the physical stress response. This leads to a downward spiral in our ability to perform or to regain control.
In cases of extreme frazzle, we can completely lose the ability to make decisions, communicate or take in our surroundings. This is known as choking or freezing (6).
However, it can be possible for us to manage frazzle with the use of appropriate strategies to regain personal composure and situational control. These techniques or “pressure relief valves” will be described in future blogs. These tools can be practised during simulation using a technique known as stress inoculation (7).
If we find ourselves in a state of overloaded, stressed frazzle on a frequent basis this is harmful to our long term mental and physical health. Repeated episodes of acute stress lead to chronic anxiety and long-term stress (8). Acute stress may be the kind of pressure we experience on a daily basis as a result of individual tasks or work challenges. However if these acute stresses recur over a long period of time they create what psychologists refer to as an allostatic load. Eventually our bodies adapt to these chronically elevated stress hormone levels.
High performance organisations can create systems and cultures which actively avoid their teams entering states of high pressure frazzle. They develop strategies to allow their staff to regain control and regain composure if they do move into a state of stress and overload.
Evidence for the inverted U theory of pressure and performance
The concept of the inverted U relationship between pressure and performance has been debated amongst psychologists for decades. There is strong evidence that as the pressure increases and becomes excessive there is a reduction in our cognitive and overall performance ability.
Many studies and review articles also support the concept of mild to moderate stress enhancing our ability to perform. A comprehensive review of the effects of stress on cognition was published by Sandi in 2018 (9). This article concluded that mild levels of stress improve cognitive function. It also found that high levels of stress impaired the ability to complete tasks requiring complex reasoning. A study of trainee surgeons by LeBlanc et al. found that moderate levels of pressure enhanced their technical surgical technique under examination conditions (10). Another study showed that focussed attention during task completion was enhanced by increased pressure (11).
It has to be said that some psychological research studies are more in favour of a linear relationship between pressure and performance i.e. increasing pressure and stress incrementally impairs our cognitive function. These studies don’t tend to support the concept of there being positive benefits of mild to moderate stress.
One large review article published in 2003 by Muse et al. (12) was however critical of the methodology used in almost all of the experimental studies which were supportive of a linear relationship rather than an inverted-U. In their opinion the studies supporting the linear relationship were biased for a number of reasons. They found that most researchers neglected to study the effect of low levels of stress on performance. Secondly, they were of the opinion that stress in many studies had a negative connotation which in itself could adversely affect performance in the subjects being studied. They concluded that: “Based on our review we vehemently oppose suggestions to scrap the inverted-U theory.”
Owning the pressure
Performance under pressure is about flow. Highly performing individuals and highly performing teams strive to attain and maintain a state of high-performance flow. They have the skills to own the pressure, maintaining the optimal level of arousal and focus. They recognise the early signs of deteriorating performance due to excessive pressure and have the tools to regain personal composure and regain situational control.
1. Yerkes R.M., Dodson J.D. The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. J. of comparative neurology and psychology. 1908; 18: 459-482
2. Goleman D. The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. 2011. Published by More than sound LLC.
3. Nideffer R.M. Getting in to the optimal performance state. https://www.epstais.com/articles/optimal.pdf
4. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Harper Collins, 13 Oct 2009
5. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience." Journal of Leisure Research, 24(1), pp. 93–94
6. Roelefs K. Freeze for action: neurological mechanisms in animal and human freezing. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 372
7. Saunders T. et al. The effect of stress inoculation training on anxiety and performance. J. of occupational health psychology. 1996; 1: 170-186
8. McEwen B.S. Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference. J. Psychiatry Neurosci. 2005; 30: 315-318
9. Sandi C. Stress and cognition. Cogn Sci 2013, 4:245-261
10. LeBlank V. et al. Examination stress leads to improvements on fundamental technical skills for surgery. American J. of Surgery. 2008; 196: 114-119
11. Chajut E., Algom D. Selective attention improves under stress: implications for theories of social cognition. J. of personality and social psychology. 2003. 85: 231-248
12. Muse et al. Has the inverted-U theory of stress and job performance had a fair test? Human Performance. 16 (4), 349-364.