The Arousal Theory of Motivation

Arousal theory explains why people seek thrilling activities.
Enjoy skydiving? Then you might be a person with high arousal needs.. Kevin Elvis King / Getty Images

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? Well, it varies from one individual to the next.

How Does the Arousal Theory of Motivation Work?

According to the arousal theory of motivation, each person has a unique arousal level that is right for them.

When our arousal levels drop below these individually mandated optimal levels, we seek stimulation to elevate them.

For example, if our levels drop too low we might seek stimulation by going out to a nightclub with friends. If these 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.

Optimal arousal levels vary from one person to the next. One person might have very low arousal needs while another individual might require very high levels. The 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. The individual with the high arousal needs, on the other hand, might need to seek risky or thrilling activities such as motorcycle racing or skydiving in order to maintain the ideal levels.

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

When we become overly aroused, we seek soothing activities that help calm and relax us. If we become bored, we head in search of 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.

Arousal and Performance

One of the assertions of the arousal theory of motivation is that our levels of arousal can influence our performance. This 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.

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. Excessive arousal can lead to test anxiety and leave you nervous and unable to concentrate on the test. When arousal levels are very high or very low, performance tends to be worse.

Learn more about the various theories of motivation.

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