14 Apr 2012

When the Stakes Are High...

Ever seen certain people perform when the plenty hangs on the results? Or have you tried concentrating on an activity knowing that the the outcome depends heavily on you and will impact many others? Tried riding/driving when you had to get to some place urgently? Watched a race where a driver tries real hard to pass someone in front, makes a move and ends up throwing away all his hard work? Ever wonder why we mess up when it matters most?

Yerkes and Dodson had conducted an experiment on rats in the early 1900s (one that will not please animal activists). It involved leaving a rat in a caged maze. When the rats would go through an incorrect door, they would get a slight shock. Those slight shocks would make the rats simply motor along to find the right door. The scientists thought if they upped the level of shock, the rats would be motivated to learn faster. But the results proved otherwise. When the level of shock was very high, the rats couldn’t concentrate! They lost the ability to think straight and find patterns. The high level of shock was just too high for the rats to focus on anything because of fear. They had lots of trouble remembering which parts of the cage were safe and were unable to find the exit. Yerkes and Dodson called this the Inverted – U principle. It states that the performance of an individual, beyond a level, starts dropping as the level of stimulus increases.
Yerkes & Dodson's Inverted-U Theory

We humans react in a similar manner when the stakes are high. Senior bosses, who are offered obscene salaries and bonuses, are forever under pressure to perform. They want to justify their salaries so bad that they start making bad decisions, decisions which to a rank outsider vary from silly to downright dumb. Or they resort to unethical schemes to spike up performance momentarily. When we work very hard on something where the stakes are high, we concentrate on what the outcome MUST BE! No slip up, no mistake; we must not screw up anywhere or the consequences will be severe. In those moments, we lose concentration. We lose our skill, our competence. This negative motivation works against us. Share traders, CEOs, racers; this rule of thumb applies to everyone! Does this apply in sex too? Experienced people can provide some insights ;)

I’ve ridden/driven like a maniac when I’ve been in a real hurry; where I thought a second’s delay would prove fatal. The result? I’ve reached 5 – 7 minutes before the time I took when I cruised along. On the other hand, when I ride fast with a free mind, there have been instances when I’ve halved the time taken (same destination, same amount of traffic). Shows that a free mind amplifies your performance while a heavily burdened one restricts it (imagine, when you need it most).

Lord Krishna, in the Bhagwad Gita, says “Focus on the outcome, not the action.” Makes sense. The only catch is it’s hard to implement. Employees work too hard to appease their bosses rather than focusing on the task at hand, software engineers work at double the pace to complete a deadline, etc... and the result? You get the point, right? There’s always a next time. One slip up is not the end of the world. This is a lesson for managers too. Don’t burden your employees with too much or try to motivate them with too much responsibility... it often backfires.

This rule may be somewhat contrary to what successful entrepreneurs go through in the initial phases. The most successful ones have gone been through times when they’ve had to succeed or their families would be on the road. But there has to be some part of this rule that has applied to them. Some part of life where they’ve worked without thinking about the outcome which has led them to where they are. The best performers (Sachin Tendulkar, Rafael Nadal... you can add any name you want...) don't worry about the consequences. They excel at their work and leave the outcome to God.

Thus, dear friends, we work better when we don’t inflate the stakes and not vice versa. Too much motivation is not good for any living being. Aamir Khan said in 3 Idiots “Don’t focus on success. Focus on excellence, and success will follow.” Let’s try making that a way of life. Let’s focus on doing a really good job of the task at hand. Try following this principle and tell me if it works. Cheers!


  1. Looks like someone is reading too much nowadays..... 100% agree with you brother keep on doing right & simple things in life will make huge difference to the world :)........ Satpal

  2. Interesting point Vishal! But as you said, it is difficult to implement! In Corporate life, when you see others wasting time and you are slogging and you guys are treated equally during the appraisals / increment time, things change.. I've seen such things happening and heard my friends saying the same..

    1. True, Binu! Then again, we shouldn't be working for anyone but ourselves. Add to our learnings, absorb as much knowledge, and if the place is unfair, move to a better one. In the end, all that matters is what we know and how we use it.

      The ones who are trying to use politricking to get their way don't last long. The problem is, we're never around to see how it ends for them :)

  3. Thanks Rahul :) Will respond to your questions on my blog soon :)

  4. I agree with your thoughts, have always preached a similar ideology. Comparison is one thing that plagues our life, since the young schooling years we get compared with our neighbor over marks and ranks, over the universities we go to study etc. And we ourselves make a mistake of comparing us with others, people who sit nad do nothing may slide through for a time, but on availability of opportunity only the talented and intelligent ones make it.


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