The Great British Bake Off is a national institution. And when it started its run this year, it broke viewership records with over 11 million viewers tuning in to watch Britain's best amateur bakers

But do we really watch it for the wonderful baking? Or is it so exciting because we are waiting for these baking masters to fail spectacularly in such a public manner? Well, in this article, I’ll be explaining the science behind why good people fail at stuff, and how you can use this science to maintain your mental health and happiness. At a time when we are all under unheard of pressures.

Under a summer of lockdowns and social restrictions, much of Britain breathe a sigh of relief when the Great British Bake Off return to our screens this autumn. Now, I’m not a baker, I can just about make bread. But that is the limit of my skills. But what keeps me glued to the screen is watching how these bakers, all of whom are capable of delivering the most spectacularly inventive culinary creations handle the increasing pressure of the challenges set by the judges.

And the moments that are replayed on TV or go viral on social media aren’t those eye popping creations? It’s the moments where a cake falls on the floor. Or someone presents a pie that looks like it’s been in a road traffic accident.

So why do master bakers occasionally or in some cases regularly deliver car crash bakes? Why do we see star bakers one we get booted off the next week, when it comes down to one thing, and that thing is pressure. Now pressure is a psychological term that was really coined by a guy called Hans Selye. Back in the 50s. He’s known as the godfather of stress because he dedicated his life to researching the impact of pressure on living things. And he was the first person to use the term stress to describe pressure on a living thing. But he was building on research that really dates back to the First World War, where to American psychologists called Yerkes and Dodson. We’re trying to understand why soldiers deserted from the army. Their research led them to develop a model which predicts the relationship between the pressure their person is under and how that affects performance.

Now, according to the Yerkes and Dodson law, there are four stages of pressure and stress response. And to understand this, I’d like you to think of a task that you have to do at some point, but at the moment is not yet urgent. 

Yerkes and Dodson Law Stage 1

What Yerkes and Dodson said is that if you have tasks without any urgency, then there is no need for you to be on your game, so to speak, so your performance will be down as you do not need to give this task your full attention. 

Yerkes and Dodson Law Stage 2

As the deadline looms interview you will give it more dedicated time and put distractions to one side, your performance improves. And indeed, there is an ideal pressure that is probably unique to you, that will bring out your optimal performance. This area is called Eustress or positive stress. And it’s this area that our master bakers spend a lot of their time baking in when there are home.

Yerkes and Dodson Law Stage 3

Now when the time is compressed, or you have more tasks to complete in the same time, then your performance starts to drop. Maybe your accuracy suffers or you forget to do something such as set the timer for your cake, or to reply to an important email. In this stage performance drops rapidly as pressure increases, and we refer to this stage as hyper arousal, you know that you are under too much pressure, and you will have a tendency to move into what’s commonly called the fight or flight mode, causing you to be more touchy than usual, maybe defensive or even go quiet and give up.

Now it’s this hyper aroused state that you see many of the bakers in during Great British Bake Off. Why? Well because they are in an alien environment. When they practice their showstoppers, most of them won’t have put themselves under that time pressure. Most of them are used to their own kitchens or their own equipment which they are comfortable with and are also probably have optimised for their own cooking style. And of course, the TV producers deliberately put them under time pressure, because they know that it will produce the most drama. You don’t want to break the contestants. But you do want them to get emotional to drop stuff, forget stuff and of course occasionally produce something wonderful, because we love to see it someone triumphed over adversity.

And of course this is true for the rest of us too. When you are under more pressure than you can handle. How does it show up in your behaviour? If you find yourself easily distracted forgetting things or annoyed by the smallest things not going to plan, then you are probably sitting in this third stage. Now research also shows that if you are hyper vigilant for long periods of time, then the stress hormones will impair your immune response, making you more likely to catch colds, the flu and maybe other viruses that I’m not going to mention here, because today we are talking about CAKE!


Yerkes and Dodson Law Stage 4

Now, some reality shows rightly get bad press because they don’t hold up their duty of care for the well being of our contestants. And they allow their contestants to drop into the fourth stage, often called shutdown, because the pressure is taken such a toll on them, that they are left with mental health issues. Fortunately, Bakeoff seems to be kinder to his contestants. And the worst that we read about is that they end up as minor culinary celebrities and host events at local food fairs. But for the rest of us, please watch out for this in yourselves, your friends, your families, because one of the troubles with lockdown is that it brings new and often unrecognisable pressures to people. homeschooling spending all day on zoom or not being able to work stress out in a swimming pool or sauna all mean that we are under possibly invisible stresses that can leave us dropping metaphorical cakes all over the place. So it’s more important than ever to look after your mental health. And it’s good to know that no matter where you are on the chart, you can get back to high performance and good well being. So how can we do that in the style of a star Baker?

Here are a few tips.

Number one, streamline your life. Cut out all unnecessary work and habits that don’t get the job done or bring you joy really minimise the tasks that you have to do to give you the best chance of doing them really well.

Number two, prioritise downtime. This doesn’t mean watch a lot of Telly. Catch up with friends on zoom, play board games with your family, read a book that makes you laugh, practice Heartmath, or yoga or meditation, and spend as much time as you can doing things that really make you come alive. The more alive you feel, the better you will perform in life. 

And finally, number three, keep learning. Try a new hobby, maybe learn to bake and get so good at it that you can go on the Great British Bake Off next year and tell Paul Hollywood that you’re inspired to bake by this video! 

Follow these steps and you’ll come out of the oven that is lockdown perfectly baked and maybe even get a handshake or two!

#gbbo #yerkesanddodson #hansselye