The arousal theory of motivation argues that people are highly motivated to maintain an optimal level of arousal at all times.
Individuals have differing preferences for their optimal level of arousal based on their general disposition, risk tolerance, the situation they find themselves in, and so on.
Nevertheless, the theory holds that we are always motivated to be seeking our optimal arousal level for the moment.
Arousal Theory Definition and Overview
In arousal theory, the state of arousal is classified as a physiological and psychological state of being awoken; typically involving our sense organs (e.g., eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin).
According to this theory, people tend to be motivated to actively increase or decrease their arousal levels with the intended goal of creating a perfect balance for themselves – this results in a direct connection to their personal overall well-being.
Donald Hebb’s (1904-1985) research during the 1950s established the groundwork for the arousal theory of motivation.
He theorized that each person possesses an ideal level of arousal, which fosters supreme performance and optimal well-being. Hebb (1966) was particularly interested in the need for optimal arousal to learn efficiently:
“…learning is dependent on drive, according to drive theory, and this too is applicable in general terms—no arousal, no learning; and efficient learning is possible only in the waking, alert, responsive animal, in which the level of arousal is high.” (p. 249).
When arousal states are insufficient, a person might pursue various invigorating activities to boost arousal, whereas when arousal states are excessive, a person will try to calm themselves down to diminish arousal.
Similarly, Daniel Berlyne (1924-1976) posited that inquisitiveness and the desire for discovery are essential propellers of arousal, guiding us towards seeking new and demanding experiences to preserve our arousal at the level we have become accustomed to.
His preference of interest has is wide-ranging in that it can encompass standards of beauty, and appreciation of certain music or art.
Later, the Yerkes-Dodson principle was introduced, further progressing the theory. This principle is outlined below.
The Yerkes-Dodson Principle
The Yerkes-Dodson Principle, conceived by psychologists Robert Yerkes (1876-1957) and John Dillingham Dodson (1908-1955), comprises a vital element of the Arousal Theory of Motivation.
This principle contends that a U-shaped correlation exists between arousal and performance. Both diminished and heightened levels of arousal can cause a decline in performance. Meanwhile, intermediate levels of arousal yield optimal results:
The ideal level of arousal depends on context, as more intricate tasks demand lower arousal levels for prime performance, while more straightforward tasks call for elevated arousal levels. Teigen (1994) adds: “On this basis, Yerkes and Dodson concluded that both weak and strong stimuli can result in slow habit-formation. The most favorable stimulus strength depends upon the nature of the task.”(p. 527).
See here for some Yerkes-Dodson Law Examples.
10 Examples of Arousal Theory of Motivation
- The thrill seeker: A person who wants to maintain a high optimal arousal level needs exciting or more extreme activates to satiate their appetite(e.g., bungie jumping, mountain climbing, skydiving).
- The urge to meditate: Choosing to meditate to lower your arousal levels, calm your mind, and relax.
- Music as a mediator of arousal: Actively listening to different kinds of music to stimulate yourself or wind down before going to bed.
- Sports as stress reduction: Playing sports, can release endorphins that can help improve your mood and state of mind, but they can also cause anxiety and stress, which can affect an athlete’s performance negatively or positively.
- Video games: Playing video games because it is exciting or fun in order to brighten up your dull day.
- Social outings: Going to see your favorite band live, or attending other social events to cheer yourself up.
- Brain stimulation: Solving crossword puzzles, or doing complex puzzles to challenge yourself.
- Scary movies: Watching scary movies to feel the thrill of being afraid.
- The experience seeker: Becoming a world traveler, and visiting places that you have never been before for the thrill.
- The artist at heart: Playing a musical instrument, or pursuing an artistic hobby (e.g., painting, photography, or writing) to satisfy your need for arousal.
1. Meditation to Achieve Arousal Balance
A person with high anxiety, or high stress, may use meditation as a method to reduce their level of arousal and return to a more balanced homeostasis.
High anxiety or stress levels may result in an over-aroused state, which can be levelled-out through meditation, which is designed to remove external distractions and clear the mind.
By using meditation as a method to reduce their level of arousal, a person is attempting to regulate their arousal level. Primarily, this involves lowering arousal. As a result, we see meditation as a key way to reduce stress and reach a calm state conducive to sleep.
This is consistent with the idea that individuals are motivated to seek out activities that bring their level of arousal back to a comfortable and functional range.
2. Changes in Arousal Levels while Playing Sports
Playing sports can release endorphins that can help improve your mood and state of mind, but they can also cause anxiety and stress, which can affect an athlete’s performance negatively or positively.
While playing sports can help relieve stress, the stress of competition can often cause athletes to have to learn methods to control their arousal.
For example, if a soccer athlete is too nervous or anxious about a match, they may miss an important goal shot.
Likewise, if they learn to temper this anxiety, it could greatly enhance their performance, causing them to make more split second rationale decisions, and play a better game. Turner & Jones (2018) believe that:
“It is important to understand the arousal response to stress in sport. Both theory and research suggest a connection between arousal and athletic performance. Recent approaches propose ideas about how the nature of arousal may differ depending on whether the athlete feels positively (as a challenge) or negatively (as a threat) about the stressor. The approach to seeing stress as a challenge supports a series of strategies that can be used to help control arousal in sport”(para 3).
They assert that for well-learned tasks, there is a positive linear relationship between arousal and performance.
When an athlete is experiencing heightened arousal it strengthens their dominant response tendency. In many cases, this can mean an improvement in performance.
Criticisms of Arousal Theory
The Arousal Theory of Motivation has received criticism for treating the complexities of human emotions too simplistically.
Richard Lazarus argued that the theory completely overlooks the interaction between cognition and emotion. He asserts:
“the emotions we experience seem to strongly influence how we act in response to these events: The joy and pride encourage renewed commitment to advance and protect career and family; the anger motivates us to seek justice and retribution; and the sadness pushes us to seek aid and comfort while coming to terms with our loss.” (Smith & Lazarus, 1990, p. 609).
To Lazarus (1990), the focus should merely be on the self-balancing, or self-regulation of our arousal, but on our emotional state as the key driver of many of our actions.
In another contrary stance to arousal theories, Deci & Ryan (2000) of self-determination theory assert that the theory sees people as too reactive, only being motivated once equilibrium is unsettled.
They argue, instead, that the way we behave is a result of the desire for self-growth, not arousal-based equilibrium.
“…rather than viewing people as passively waiting for a disequilibrium, we view them as naturally inclined to act on their inner and outer environments, engage activities that interest them, and move toward personal and interpersonal coherence. Thus, they do not have to be pushed or prodded to act.”(p. 230).
Arousal Theory vs Drive Reduction Theory
Drive reduction theory and arousal theory are closely related but have different mechanisms for motivation.
Drive reduction theory holds that humans have innate needs – for food, shelter, comfort, etc. – which are key motivators for action. When we reach a state of disequilibrium in regards to one of our innate needs, we experience motivation (or ‘drive’) to return to homeostasis. For example, when hungry, we seek food.
Here, we see overlaps between the two theories: both explain motivation as a way to seek inner equilibrium in regards to our needs.
However, there are two key differences:
- The Motivator: In drive reduction theory, there is a wide range of innate physiological and psychological needs that must always be met: food, shelter, protection, and so on. By contrast, in arousal theory, we tend to only seek to resolve one key drive: arousal. As a result, arousal theory has a more narrow theoretical scope.
- The Action: Drive reduction theory holds that our desire is to constantly reduce our desire for physiological and psychological needs. We do this by satiating the needs (e.g. if we’re hungry, we have a big meal). By contrast, arousal theory holds that we are constantly moderating our optimal inner state in a delicate balancing act. This means that sometimes we want to increase stimulation and desire, not just reduce it.
Arousal theory explores how humans and animals tend to be motivated by the need to moderate our arousal levels at all time. While the theory appears to be touching on an important key idea: that arousal is a key motivator for action, it is nevertheless criticized for its narrow scope and limited understanding of the complex array of factors that affect human action and desire.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self -Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli1104_01
Hebb, D. O. (1966). 4. Drives and the c.n.s. (conceptual nervous system)*. University of California Press EBooks, 67–84. https://doi.org/10.1525/9780520318267-004
Marin, M. M., Lampatz, A., Wandl, M., & Leder, H. (2016). Berlyne Revisited: Evidence for the Multifaceted Nature of Hedonic Tone in the Appreciation of Paintings and Music. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00536
Smith, C., & Lazarus, R. (1990). Ch. 23 Emotion and Adaptation. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research (pp. 609–637). Guilford. https://people.ict.usc.edu/~gratch/CSCI534/Readings/Smith&Lazarus90.pdf
Teigen, K. H. (1994). Yerkes-Dodson: A Law for all Seasons. Theory & Psychology, 4(4), 525-547. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959354394044004
Turner, M. R., & Jones, M. V. (2018c). Arousal Control in Sport. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.013.155
Khalsa, S. S., Rudrauf, D., Davidson, R. J., & Tranel, D. (2015). The effect of meditation on regulation of internal body states. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00924