the yerkes dodson law in clinical settings it s good for another 100 years
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The Yerkes-Dodson Law in Clinical Settings: It’s good for another 100 years. Bradford C. Richards, Ph.D. Meagan C. Parmley, Ph.D. Jennifer A. Harrington, Ph.D. Pamela J. Stanley, LPCC, ACT. The Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque. Goals:.

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the yerkes dodson law in clinical settings it s good for another 100 years

The Yerkes-Dodson Law in Clinical Settings: It’s good for another 100 years

Bradford C. Richards, Ph.D.

Meagan C. Parmley, Ph.D.

Jennifer A. Harrington, Ph.D.

Pamela J. Stanley, LPCC, ACT

The Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque

  • Celebrate the durability of a fundamental law of psychology on it’s 100th anniversary
  • Reframe the YDL in contemporary terms using parallel distributed processing theory, signal detection theory, and discrete emotion theory
  • Extend the utility of this explanation of the YDL to clinical case conceptualization, intervention, and psychotherapy integration
  • Show how the YDL can help simplify complex cases and difficult therapeutic alliances in ways that are consistent with the pragmatics of CBT

The Original Findings: Black/White Discrimination Training

I – Experiment 1, moderate difficulty

The results were surprising to the authors, who had expected a linear decline. The authors then decided to vary task difficulty.

II – Experiment 2, low difficulty

The task was made easier by making the black door appear even darker. “Our results do not represent, in this instance, the point at which the rapidity of learning begins to decrease, for we did not care to subject our animals to injurious stimulation.”

III – Experiment 3, high difficulty

The task was made more difficult by making the black door appear much lighter.

The Conclusion:

“This leads us to infer that an easily acquired habit, that is one which does not demand difficult sense discriminations or complex associations, may readily be formed under strong stimulation, whereas a difficult habit may be acquired readily only under relatively weak stimulation.”

easterbrook s 1959 explanation of the yerkes dodson law arousal narrows attention
Easterbrook’s (1959) explanation of the Yerkes-Dodson Law: Arousal narrows attention
  • “(Arousal is an emotional process that) acts consistently to reduce the range of cue utilization.”
  • “On some tasks reduction in the range of cue utilization improves performance. Irrelevant cues are excluded and drive is then said to be organizing or motivating.”
  • “In other tasks, proficiency demands the use of a wide range of cues, and drive is disorganizing or emotional.”
  • “There seems to be an optimal range of cue utilization for each task.”
an alternate hypothesis what if there are two processes operating
An alternate hypothesis: what if there are two processes operating?
  • Easterbrook spoke of only one process, the narrowing of attention by arousal.
  • Attention may only appear to be narrowed because high arousal leads to the re-allocation of attentional resources to another process.

What would the Yerkes-Dodson curve look like if we were to draw it in terms of two competing parallel processes?

(let’s use the arousal of fear as our protypical example…)

In Signal Detection Theory, it would look like this:Decreased attention = Cognitive resources allocated to an interfering task
a shift in perspective
A Shift in Perspective
  • It’s not just about performance on one task
  • When emotional arousal gets high, an emotional task is activated, and that emotional task uses cognitive resources
  • This “parallel task” explanation hinges on the assumption that emotions tend to activate tasks
Emotion theorists agree:

Emotions DO activate implicit tasks

  • Discrete emotion theorists (Ira Roseman, Klaus Scherer) have identified “Emotivational Goals” for each emotion
  • Fear activates “escape” goals
  • Anger activates “attack” goals
  • Sadness activates “withdraw” and “conserve” goals
  • Carroll Izard refers to “Behavioral Action Tendencies” in the same way
Because emotions activate tasks, then emotional tasks can interfere with other tasks.
  • This emotional task interference would reduce performance on the main task, just as we see in the Yerkes-Dodson curve.
  • Is there any coherent scientific model of dual-task interference? Let’s try one…



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The Stroop task is an example of dual-task intereference. In this case, the interfering task is well-learned (word reading), not emotional.
why therapy typically focuses on emotions
Why therapy typically focuses on emotions

Clinical case C.H. comes to therapy irregularly, usually at the pleadings of family members.

He is single, 40 years old, and is a heavy drinker and an indiscriminant womanizer. He usually states that he prefers this lifestyle.

C.H. was once engaged to a woman named Mia, but his desire to retain his freedom resulted in the end of the relationship.

His indiscriminant dating has recently escalated. Many of his dating partners are married. C.H. has recently been the victim of beatings and death threats by some of the jealous husbands of some of his new dating partners.


Since we are stuck with feelings, we might as well try to understand them. Toward this end, can the YD model be used to help us understand emotions about emotions?

Why not? Psychodynamic theory maintains that people remain emotionally stuck or “neurotic” because useful emotional experiences are prevented by the automatic deployment of “defense mechanisms.” The graph above shows a typical case.

presenter meagan carleton parmley ph d
Presenter: Meagan Carleton Parmley, Ph.D.
  • Staff Psychologist, Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque
  • Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA
  • Completed the New Mexico Southwest Consortium Pre-doctoral Psychology Internship
  • Also trained at the University of Pennsylvania Weight and Eating Disorders Clinic
  • Extensive experience in CBT for Social Anxiety
clinical case ocd
Clinical Case: OCD
  • The client is considered permanently disabled from OCD
  • The client is taking high doses of SSRIs, benzodiazepines, and antipsychotics (not prescribed by us)
  • In his last exposure session, the client was able to join the therapist in eating food from the surface of a toilet seat (which he had been allowed to clean)
  • The focus of the therapy is tolerating anxiety, which is the prototypical emotion for the YDL
  • In this session, the therapist uses YDL graph for motivational interviewing - she gives the client time to think about the meaning of it
supervision session 1
Supervision session 1
  • The client has borderline personality traits
  • The therapist wants to figure out how to help the client focus in and outside of sessions
  • The client fears and avoids being alone, and the therapist wants to help the client learn how to be alone safely
  • The therapist wants to use the YDL to facilitate client goal-setting
presenter jennifer a harrington ph d
Presenter: Jennifer A. Harrington, Ph.D.
  • Postdoctoral Fellow, Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque
  • Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of New Mexico
  • Completed the New Mexico Southwest Consortium Pre-doctoral Psychology Internship
  • Extensive research experience in learning theory, rumination, and other clinical topics
nmpa friday forum december 5 2008

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): A Brief OverviewJennifer A. Harrington, Ph.D.The Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque, LLC

NMPA Friday Forum

December 5, 2008

acceptance and commitment therapy act
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) [pronounced “act” not “A-C-T”] focuses on the ways clients understand and perpetuate their difficulties through language.
  • Metaphors, paradoxes, and experiential exercises are frequently used to undermine emotional avoidance, excessive literal response to cognitive content, and the inability to make and keep commitments to behavior change.
  • ACT is a process-guided approach to psychological suffering and its alleviation, not a set of intervention technologies matched to specific DSM disorders.
goals of treatment
Goals of Treatment

Commonly Used Treatments

Targets for intervention:

=> Private events


=> To change their form, frequency, intensity

- DSM is based on: 1.) topography and 2.) assumption of healthy normality

- Paradoxical Effects: “If you aren’t willing to have it, then you’ve got it.”

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Target of intervention:

=> How clients evaluate and respond to their private events


=> To change the function of private events, rather than their form or frequency

- Based on assumption that human suffering is universal

- A functional, contextual intervention that deliberately focuses on psychological exposure and the weakening of avoidance of private verbal events

experiential avoidance
Experiential Avoidance


“Behavior whose primary function is the elimination, minimization, or reduction in the form, frequency, or situational sensitivity of various private events”

(Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette, & Strosahl, 1996)

- Thought suppression may be considered a specific instance of experiential avoidance

- Experiential avoidance itself is not an abnormal part of being verbal, and only becomes a pathogenic process when it becomes a barrier to valued action

for more information
For More Information

Contact me via e-mail:

[email protected]

Visit the Contextual Psychology website:

presenter pamela j stanley m a lpcc act
Presenter: Pamela J. Stanley, M.A., LPCC, ACT
  • Certified Cognitive Therapist, Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque
  • M.A. Counseling from Webster University
  • Completed full-time Clinical Fellowship at the Institute
  • Certified in Cognitive Therapy by the Academy of Cognitive Therapy
  • Former Staff Therapist at Presbyterian Behavioral Medicine, Presbyterian Medical Group, Kaseman Hospital
  • Specialties include perinatal mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders
cbt case conceptualization of character defenses the gentle art of character assassination

CBT Case Conceptualization of Character Defenses: The Gentle Art of Character Assassination

Presented by

Pamela J. Stanley, LPCC, ACT

connecting the theories
Connecting the Theories
  • Using Yerkes Dodson as a tool for high arousal of emotions is not restricted to Axis I disorders
  • Traditionally, therapy for pernicious and intransigent cases has not been the primary focus of CBT
Using Yerkes Dodson in the CBT framework can be quite effectively applied to Axis II Diagnoses of Personality Disorders
  • We do not have to ignore what are traditionally referred to as Character Defenses
  • In CBT “Character Defenses” are simply described as “Emotionally-driven Behaviors”
If a person detects a threat to his/her preferred sense of self, the resulting anxiety would motivate avoidance behaviors
  • These avoidance behaviors can take a wide variety of forms yet all serve the same function – conservation of the preferred sense of self!
  • After years of self defense and conservation, very little anxiety is required to elicit avoidance behaviors (defenses)
emotionally driven behaviors defenses
Emotionally-Driven Behaviors/Defenses
  • Self-idealization & boasting: (PRIDE)
  • Rationalization of affairs: I have no guilt (SELF-PITY)
  • Poor me (SELF-PITY)
  • Suicidal Ideation: I have to escape this anxiety and my failures (RAGE)
the answer you ve been waiting for
The answer you’ve been waiting for….

What is the Gentle Art of Character Assassination?

Helping the patient to change his/her definition of themselves and relationships (without killing them!).

cbt techniques used for character assassination
CBT Techniques used for Character Assassination
  • Differential Reinforcement of Other behaviors (DRO)
    • DRO always specifies what is rewarded
    • DRO always specifies what is extinguished
  • Extinction – Ignoring rationalizations, etc.
  • Reinforcement – noticing, clarifying, and attending to functional definitions/beliefs (in this case, the definitions of intimacy and of an acceptable self)
dro behaviors to reward
DRO: Behaviors to Reward
  • Reward when patient is self-accepting
  • Reward when patient is authentic
  • Reward when patient takes responsibility for his behavior
dro behaviors on extinction
DRO: Behaviors on Extinction
  • Persona
  • Self-pity (or the “martyr’s pride”)
  • Boasting, self-idealizing
challenge definitions of self and intimacy clarifying the dro contingency
Challenge Definitions of Self and Intimacy (Clarifying the DRO Contingency)
  • Reward self-acceptance behaviors and thoughts (not self-aggrandizing)
  • Reward when patient is genuine (not putting on a show)
  • Acknowledge when patient has taken responsibility for his behavior(s) (not externalizing)
trying to keep arousal up
Trying to keep arousal up
  • YDL predicts that any therapeutic task would have an optimal level of arousal
  • With anxiety disorders, other research shows that very high levels of arousal are necessary for improvement
  • Sometimes, it is very difficult to keep arousal high enough during session, especially with deeply entrenched cases
advantages of using the yerkes dodson law to teach and motivate clients
Advantages of using the Yerkes-Dodson Law to teach and motivate clients:
  • It is simple: the general tendency to avoid threat is easily understood
  • It graphically depicts a natural, but often maladaptive, tendency toward emotionally-driven behavior
  • It allows for exploration of “defenses” without needing much theoretical indoctrination
  • It is normalizing and non-pejorative