How Arousal Theory of Motivation Works

Arousal Levels Can Affect Behavior and Performance

Arousal theory explains why people seek thrilling activities.
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What is it that motivates us to do the things we do? There are many theories of motivation, one of which focuses on arousal levels. The arousal theory of motivation suggests that people are driven to perform actions in order to maintain an optimum level of physiological arousal.

What exactly is the optimal level of motivation? It varies from one individual to the next. Some people may require a higher level of arousal, which might motivate them to seek out exciting and stimulating activities. Other people may do better with much lower arousal levels, so they might feel compelled to seek out soothing and relaxing activities.

One of the key assumptions of the arousal theory is that we are motivated to pursue actions that help us maintain an ideal balance.

What Is Arousal Theory?

According to the arousal theory of motivation, each person has a unique arousal level that is right for them. When our arousal levels fall outside of these personalized optimal levels, we seek some sort of activity to get them back within our desired ranges.

Examples of arousal theory include:

  • If our arousal levels drop too low, we might seek stimulation by going out to a nightclub with friends.
  • If our arousal levels become too elevated and we become overstimulated, we might be motivated to select a relaxing activity such as going for a walk or taking a nap.

Arousal can be mental (cognitive), emotional (affective), or physical—sometimes referred to as the three parts of arousal theory or the three types of arousal.

What is Arousal Theory in Psychology?

The American Psychological Association explains that, according to arousal theory, our physical environment can affect our arousal levels through stimulation (such as by being noisy) and by creating stress when psychological or physical needs go unmet.

How Arousal Theory Works

When we become overly aroused, we seek soothing activities that help calm and relax us. If we become bored, we search for more invigorating activities that will energize and arouse us. It's all about striking the right balance, but that balance is unique to each individual.

Arousal theory shares some commonalities with drive-reduction theory. But instead of focusing on reducing tension, arousal theory suggests that we are motivated to maintain an ideal level of arousal.

Factors That Influence Arousal Theory

There are many factors that can influence each person's optimal arousal levels, including genetics, experience, and current mood.

Your arousal preferences, in general, may be specified by your genetic makeup, but environmental factors can also play a role in how you are feeling at any given moment. One person may have very low arousal needs while another individual might require very high levels.

How Arousal Affects Performance

Why is arousal theory important? One of the assertions of this theory of motivation is that our levels of arousal can influence our performance. But again, balance is key.

Higher arousal levels can sometimes help us perform better, but they can also impair performance if arousal levels are too high.

This concept is commonly referred to as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. The law states that increased levels of arousal will improve performance, but only up until the optimum arousal level is reached.

At that point, performance begins to suffer as arousal levels increase. Additionally, if you're doing a complex task, high or low levels of arousal will affect you more than if you're doing something simple.

Most students have experienced this phenomenon when taking final exams. Increased arousal can lead to better test performance by helping you stay alert, focused, and attentive. But excessive arousal can lead to test anxiety and leave you nervous and unable to concentrate. When arousal levels are very high or very low, performance tends to be worse.

How to Change Your Arousal and Motivation

A person with low arousal needs might be motivated to pursue simple activities such as crocheting or watching a movie in order to maintain their arousal levels. An individual with high arousal needs, on the other hand, might be motivated to seek risky or thrilling activities such as motorcycle racing or skydiving in order to maintain their ideal levels.

If you need to raise your arousal levels, you might:

  • Engage in physical activity
  • Socialize with friends
  • Try something new and exciting
  • Watch an action-packed movie

If you need to lower your arousal levels, you might:

No matter what your arousal needs are, you will be motivated to act in order to maintain these levels. If you need more arousal, you will pursue actions designed to raise those levels. If you need less, you will seek out ways to calm down and relax.

1 Source
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  1. American Psychological Association. Arousal theory.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.