Arousal Theory of Motivation: Definition, Principles & How to Optimize

The arousal theory of motivation states that motivation is dictated by specific levels of “arousal”, which in psychology represents mentally alertness. People have different levels of optimal arousal and are motivated to take actions that help them achieve their optimum level. However, studies show that moderate levels of arousal typically result in maximum motivation.

How the Arousal Theory of Motivation Works

Each and every person has a specific level of mental alertness – known as arousal – that results in optimal levels of motivation. When your arousal level drops below your optimal threshold, you become demotivated until your arousal spikes. At the same time, if your arousal level becomes too high, you also become demotivated until you do something that drops your alertness back to your desired level.

Arousal can be stimulated by any number of things or actions, but it always results in motivation (or lack thereof). For example, if you become demotivated at work, you might try to spike your mental alertness by taking on more complex tasks, which in turn might motivate you to work harder and get that promotion you deserve. Using another example, you might become socially demotivated and decide to go to a bar or a club with friends, spiking your arousal back to optimal levels.

On the other hand, if your arousal levels get too high, you can also become demotivated. For example, if you’re working too hard on the job and taking on work that’s too complex, you might become stressed and burn out. To combat this, you might take a long weekend to recharge, giving you time to lower your arousal back to optimal levels. If you’ve been too social, you might spend a weekend watching Netflix rather than going out with friends, which might increase your motivation to go out the next time a social opportunity arises.

Overall, this motivational theory states that we are motivated to pursue actions that give us balance and stop us from becoming under or overstimulated. Rather than trying to maximize your mental alertness in the hopes that it will help you remain motivated and achieve your goals, seek balance that gives you periods of rest, followed by sprints towards your ultimate desires. You want to be a high performer, yes, but even high performers need to take it easy every now and again.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law & Optimal Arousal

The Yerkes-Dodson law is related to the arousal theory of motivation, which says that increased levels of mental alertness will improve motivation and performance, but only to a certain point. When that threshold is breached, arousal has an adverse effect in that it decreases your motivation the more mental attentiveness you have. This means that you have a specific level of optimal arousal unique to yourself, and it’s up to you to seek experiences that optimize your motivation and performance.

A great example of this is test taking. When prepping for an exam, you have an optimal level of arousal that will lead to increased motivation, and therefore, performance. For example, increased arousal (or mental alertness) can help you study and keeps you attentive to the task at hand. That said, too much mental arousal can lead to stress and a lack of sleep, which will cause you to have poor test results.

While we might not all be taking tests at this point in our lives, the principle remains – optimal arousal is all about balance. Failure to find that balance results in over- or under-stimulation, causing you to become demotivated, hurting your performance. This is why the Yerkes-Dodson law states that a moderate level of arousal is typically optimal for most people.

The assumption that the Yerkes-Dodson law of optimal arousal makes is that people are motivated to take actions that achieve their specific level of arousal. If arousal is too low, people are motivated to do more, and if arousal is too high, people are motivated to do less (which can result in demotivation). The key is finding that optimum balance we’ve been discussing, and staying within your personal arousal limits to maximize motivation without becoming burnt out.

How to Achieve Optimal Arousal & Motivation

The key to achieving your optimal level of arousal, which results in your maximum level of motivation, is to first identify your arousal threshold. Are you a thrillseeker? Do you feel most alive when you’re taking risks and/or being a social butterfly? If so, you might have a high threshold of arousal. Conversely, if you’re more of a homebody who enjoys relaxing experiences, you might have a lower level of arousal.

Once you’ve identified your personal level or arousal, the next step to achieve your maximum motivation is to seek experiences that keep you at your optimal arousal. For example, if you have a high threshold, you might start a company or work on three large projects at once, but then follow it up with a long vacation or break to keep you charged and energetic. If you have a low threshold, you might seek a more traditional job with stability and pick up a fun side hobby to stimulate yourself.

Again, the key is balance. Work hard and take on complex tasks, but don’t forget to take it easy from time-to-time. While it seems counterintuitive, periods of hard work followed by periods of rest and recovery actually lead to higher levels of motivation.

Arousal Motivation’s Effects on Task Performance

Arousal can affect performance in many ways, and arousal levels that are too low or too high can negatively impact your performance. However, the two most prominent ways are the fact that moderate arousal is best for difficult tasks while high or low arousal might be good for simple tasks, and that arousal can affect your performance both positively and negatively when in the presence of others.

The specific effects on task performance include:

  1. Arousal that is too high or too low can negatively impact performace
  2. Difficult tasks are performed better at moderate or low levels of arousal
  3. Easy tasks can be performed with low, moderate, or high arousal
  4. Experts perform better with people watching, while novices do better alone

First, research supports the idea that people perform difficult tasks best at moderate levels of arousal while people perform easy tasks effectively over a wider spectrum of arousal, both low and high. For example, when taking a test, you can answer easy questions correctly even if you’re very tired or anxious, whereas the right tension of relaxation and alertness – or moderate arousal – will help you best stay engaged and answer the tough questions without getting too stressed about it.

Second, the presence of others seems to affect task performance, known as social facilitation. Social facilitation states that people can perform tasks they’re confident with better if people are watching, and yet perform tasks they’re unconfident with worse if people are watching.

For example, world-renown athletes confident in their abilities often perform better when everyone’s watching and the pressure’s on. Conversely, someone lacking confidence in their intelligence might be unable to solve a complex puzzle if people are watching, but have an easier time if there’s no pressure and it can be approached like a fun game with no one around to judge.

Assumptions of the Arousal Theory of Motivation

While the arousal theory of motivation makes sense, there are many assumptions it makes. To fully understand the concept and use it to motivate yourself to the best of your ability, check out the following key assumptions made by the theory:

  • People are motivated by arousal: You are motivated by experiences and actions that lead to mental stimulation.
  • People have an optimal arousal level: Each and every individual has a unique level of arousal that leads to maximum personal motivation.
  • People seek experiences that lead to optimal arousal: You make most of your decisions, either consciously or unconsciously, based on your optimal level of arousal.
  • Optimal arousal is typically moderate: While it may seem like the higher the arousal the higher the motivation, medium levels of arousal typically lead to motivation maximization.
  • Over- and under-arousal both lead to demotivation: It’s not just under-arousal that will demotivate you. In fact, over-arousal will lead to the same demotivation.

Benefits & Drawbacks of the Arousal Theory

The major benefit of the arousal theory of motivation is that you can control your motivation simply through the experiences you seek. This is incredibly empowering. What’s more, you can also motivate others if you identify their optimal level of alertness. Further, the arousal theory preaches balance, which is a great way to both remain motivated as well as taking time to smell the flowers and enjoy the simple things in life.

Conversely, the major drawback of the theory is that motivation is only tied to your arousal, and nothing else. This may or may not be true, but we’ve all faced situations where we’re tired, stressed, and/or demotivated, and yet still we pushed through and maintained high levels of arousal to achieve a task, even if it has an adverse motivational effect. So, when implementing this theory, consider other factors of motivation when you’re planning to achieve your goals.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is an Example of Arousal Theory?

A great example of arousal theory is test taking. Naturally, you would think that higher levels of arousal – or mental stimulation – would lead to higher motivation and better performance. However, this is not the case, because too much arousal can lead to stress and a lack of performance. Therefore, you need to find the optimal balance and act accordingly.

What Does Arousal Mean in Psychology?

Arousal in psychology means “mental alertness” or “mental attentiveness”. It is your level of engagement in the task or experience at hand, which directly increases or decreases your motivation, and therefore, your performance. People are often motivated to take actions that help them achieve optimal mental arousal.

What are Other Motivational Theories?

There are many other motivational theories that drive people to succeed. Some of these specific theories of motivation include the expectancy theory of motivation and the equity theory of motivation. Understanding more of these theories can help you create a composit approach to your own motivation, using what works best for you.


Overall, your motivation is all about the balance between high levels of stimulation and periods of rest and recovery. If done correctly, you can cultivate a series of experiences that achieve your optimal level of mental alertness, and therefore your optimal level of motivation. Overall, the more motivated you are the better you’ll perform.