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Arousal Theory of Motivation: Definition, Principles & Optimization

arousal theory of motivation
Table of Contents

The arousal theory of motivation states that motivation is dictated by specific levels of “arousal”, which in psychology represents mental 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.

In this article, you’ll learn the ins-and-outs of this theory, including how to locate your optimal arousal and maximize your 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 mental alertness becomes too high, you also become demotivated until your arousal drops back to your desired level.

Arousal can be stimulated by any number of things or actions, but it always results in higher or lower motivation. Meaningful work, a night out with friends, or a fun new activity are all things that can spike arousal and therefore motivation. For example, if you become demotivated at work, you might spike your mental alertness by taking on new and complex tasks, which in turn motivates you to work harder and get that promotion you deserve.

However, if you become overstimulated your mental alertness can spike too high, which decreases performance and motivation. This is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. For example, if you’re working hard on the job and taking on tasks that are new and complex, you may become overstimulated and burn out. To combat this, you might take a long weekend to recharge, giving yourself time to lower your arousal back to optimal levels.

Overall, this motivational theory states the following:

  • Your mental alertness affects both motivation and task performance
  • People have an optimal level of arousal they’re motivated to achieve
  • Too much or too little arousal can decrease performance and demotivate you
  • Motivation is about striking the right balance, which is unique for each person

Arousal Motivation’s Effects on Performance

All else equal, arousal levels that are too low or too high can negatively impact your performance. However, the arousal theory takes it deeper and posits that moderate arousal is best for difficult tasks while higher or lower arousal might be good for simple tasks. Also, 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 performance
  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


Research supports the idea that people perform difficult tasks better at moderate levels of alertness while they can perform easy tasks over a wider spectrum of arousal. For example, when taking a test, you can answer easy questions even if you’re tired or anxious, whereas you need the right tension of relaxation and alertness to stay engaged and answer the tough questions without getting too stressed about it.

Research also shows that the presence of others also 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, athletes confident in their abilities often perform better when everyone’s watching and the pressure’s high. 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.

How to Achieve Optimal Arousal & Motivation

The key to achieving your optimal level of arousal—which results in your maximum level of performance and motivation—is to first identify your arousal threshold. Once you’ve identified your personal level of arousal, the next step is to seek experiences that keep you at your optimal arousal. Only then will you maximize your motivation.

When searching for your ideal level of mental alertness, take note of the things that either invigorate your or tire you out. When do you feel demotivated and lethargic? When this happens you’ve probably reached your lower bound. When do you feel stressed and demotivated? This might be the threshold of your upper bound.

Once you’ve identified where your optimum level is, assess which actions you took increased or decreased your alertness. Did taking on more complex tasks at work motivate you or stress you out? Questions like these indicate what you can do to increase or decrease your arousal to keep it within your defined limits.

Overall, the key is balance. Work hard and take on complex tasks, sure, 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.

Assumptions of the Arousal Theory

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.
  • High/low arousal negatively affects performance and motivation: It’s not just too little arousal that will affect task performance and demotivate you. In fact, too much arousal will lead to the same decline in performance and motivation.

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 take time to 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 we still push through 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.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law & Optimal Arousal

The Yerkes-Dodson law says that increased levels of mental alertness will improve motivation and performance only to a certain point. When that threshold is breached, arousal has an adverse effect in that it decreases performance and therefore motivation. 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.

The assumption that the Yerkes-Dodson law makes is that moderate levels of arousal are optimal for most people and that we’re motivated by actions that achieve our specific arousal level. If arousal is too low, people are motivated to do more, and if arousal is too high, people are motivated to do less. 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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

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 is an Example of Arousal Theory?

A great example of arousal theory is test taking. Naturally, you would think that higher levels of 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 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 composite approach to your own motivation, using what works best for you.

Conclusion

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.

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