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The Arousal Theory of Motivation



Enjoy skydiving? Then you might be a person with high arousal needs.

Image: Jeff Hallam

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 It Works?

According to the arousal theory of motivation, when our arousal levels drop below our individually mandated optimal levels, we seek out stimulation to elevate them. For example, if our levels drop too low we might seek stimulation by going out to a night club 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 out risky or thrilling activities such as motorcycle racing or sky diving in order to maintain the ideal levels.

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 have an influence on 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.

Learn more about the various theories of motivation.

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