The Inverted U-Curve of Life

May 31, 2015 by Ken Nowack

“Moderation in all things, especially moderation.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Success2I would rate (and so would others) most of my skills in life as pretty average compared to others.

In some things I’m pretty deeply developmentally delayed and won’t ever catch up (e.g., driving, reading a map, dancing, house painting).

Maybe to achieve happiness and success it’s desirable to cultivate skills and abilities that are somewhere between excesses and deficiencies. Some new research actually exists to support this premise.

Achievement Striving and Job Performance

Compared to talent who are low in achievement striving (conscientiousness in the “Big Five”) high flyers tend to be more motivated to perform well on the job and more likely to achieve higher performance due to their goal setting, drive, careful planning and persistence to move through obstacles and challenges. But, after a certain point, high achievers become pretty rigid, frozen to make decisions, inflexible, and almost compulsive perfectionists.

Too much achievement orientation might result in paying too much attention to the small stuff, overlooking bigger goals and having rigidity might actually interfere with ongoing professional development.

It appears that there is indeed a threshold level of conscientiousness that once crossed actually interferes with high performance ((Le, H. et al., (2011). Too much of a good thing: Curvilinear relationships between personality traits and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96-113-133)). In a new study exploring the association between achievement striving and performance it appears that for higher level complexity jobs (engineer, scientist) more is indeed better compared to low complexity jobs.

Indeed, a curvilinear relationship was found between conscientiousness and performance for low complexity jobs where deliberate, cautious, diligent and rigid attributes of high flyers leads to people to waste time influencing both speed and accuracy.

These findings support a U-shaped relationship—high achievement will initially lead to better performance but the relationship will become weaker and then eventually disappear after it reaches a certain point and this relationship depends on just how complex the job is. One implication of this finding is that for more routine roles where innovation and intellectual thinking isn’t critical it might be a mistake to hire those on “potential” and drive alone. In fact, they might fail in these roles but really shine in more complex positions.

Stress and Job Performance

On the surface it would appear that the ability to manage emotions, remain calm under pressure and experience less negative states like anxiety would always be desirable. Researchers have for a long time predicted an “inverted U-shape curve” between stress and performance (Yerkes-Dodson law) but perhaps this curvilinear relationship can explain the modest correlations seen between emotional stability and job performance in the literature.

As emotion (e.g., anxiety) rises, people tend to focus and concentrate better but at higher levels it may interfere with critical thinking, judgment and decision making. Again, an optimal level of concentration is required to perform well but might be wasted and no longer be helpful. In a study by Le et al., 2011, the researchers found a curvilinear relationship with emotional stability, job performance and organizational citizenship behavior. This research tends to support the notion that there is an optimal midrange level (threshold) of personality and job performance.

Optimism, Self-Efficacy/Self-Esteem

Believing that things will turn out positively and that one gets results based on effort and confidence sounds like it’s a formula for success and productivity. However, new research supports the idea that an “optimal level of optimism” is desirable because at high levels it would appear that optimism encourages riskier behaviors and expectations that are difficult to meet ((Grant, A. & Schwartz, B. (2011). Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted U. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 6, 61-76)).

According to research, sometimes quitting may actually be better for your health. Psychologist’s Gregory Miller and Carsten Wroshch have found that people who are able to feel comfortable quitting when faced with unattainable goals even when they were optimistic they could complete them may actually have better mental and physical health than those who persevere and push themselves to succeed ((Miller, G. & Wrosch, C. (2007). You’ve Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em: Goal Disengagement and Systemic Inflammation in Adolescence. Psychological Science, 18, 773-777)).

This study was based on their previous research which found that those persistent individuals in the face of uncontrollable goals actually experienced higher levels of an inflammatory protein called C-reactive protein (an indicator of stress) as well as increased cortisol. Contrary to what we might have been taught, it appears that it might be in our best interests to “cut our losses” in the face of unattainable goals and life challenges and actually disengage from the goal to ensure optimum well-being and potentially long-term health.

Happiness/Life Satisfaction

The happier one is in life the more successful they are right? Not necessarily. Longitudinal studies from UK, Germany and Australia suggests that life satisfaction actually has an inverted-U-shaped relationship with income 5 to 15 years later ((Oishi, S., Diener, E. & Lucas (2007). The optimum level of well-being: Can people be too happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346-360)). In fact, people with the highest levels of happiness achieved lower education and engaged in less political participation that those who were moderately satisfied in life.

Angus Deaton, an economist at the Center for Health and Well-being at Princeton, and Daniel Kahneman reviewed surveys of 450,000 Americans conducted in 2008 and 2009 for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index that included questions on people’s day-to-day happiness and their overall life satisfaction. Happiness got better as income rose but the effect leveled out at $75,000 but their overall life satisfaction continued to rise as their earnings grew beyond that point ((Kahneman, D. & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. PNAS, 107, 16489-16493)).

So, it appears that the “inverted-U-curve” is a pretty prevalent phenomenon in psychology and life and helps to answer just how much or too little is needed to be healthy, happy and successful in life.

I’m sure like all Blogs, there is also an inverted-U-curve about length and attention so I’m off to get my guide dog puppy Enzo out for a training walk…Be well….

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Wellness

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  1. […] Most actions can be categorized under the Goldilocks Principle of Too Little or Just-Right or Too Much for the situation. This is the concept of balance and appropriateness. It is also the described by the inverted U-Curve. […]

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