The Arousal Theory of Motivation

What is the Optimal Arousal Theory of Motivation?

The Arousal Theory of Motivation

The basic assumption of the optimal arousal theory of motivation is that environmental factors influence our brain’s level of arousal. We engage in certain actions for the purpose of attaining an optimal arousal level by either decreasing or increasing the amount and type of stimulation received from the environment.

What is Optimal Arousal

What is optimal arousal varies from person to person and from situation to situation. Ideally though, we’re generally more motivated when we perform tasks or engage in activities that provide us with challenges that are appropriate for our abilities, i.e. these tasks are neither too difficult nor too easy for us.

According to the optimal arousal theory of motivation, we undergo different levels of arousal brought about by our particular set of experiences throughout our lives. When the arousal level is extremely low and we feel bored, we engage in activities that will increase our arousal level, such as going out with friends, watching a car race or playing video games.

On the other hand, when arousal level is too high, such as when we are too anxious or stressed, we often resort to engaging in relaxation methods such as reading a book, getting a massage, or meditating.

Some people are naturally inclined to be thrill seekers, and they tend to have higher optimal arousal levels. They require intense physical, emotional and intellectual activities to make them happy. For example, they may prefer skydiving to reading.

Optimal Arousal Level and Performance

The optimal arousal theory of motivation states that we seek to attain optimal arousal level because by achieving the optimal arousal level, we can perform at our best.

We know that we have reached the optimal arousal level when we are comfortable physically, emotionally and intellectually. We experience harmony and balance within our bodies and our minds.

Therefore, it is important for us to listen to our body and to keep our body in balance by heeding signals that it gives us. These signals provide us with vital information such as being in need of sleep, in need of a distraction from problems, or in need of a pleasurable activity when feeling overworked.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

An interesting corollary related to the optimal arousal theory of motivation is the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

In 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson investigated the relationship between people’s arousal levels and their performance in various tasks. the results, they developed the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that our performance increases as our mental and physiological arousal levels increase. However, there is a point at which further increase in arousal level won’t have any positive impact on our performance.

According to the Yorke-Dodson Law, our performance on easy tasks tends to remain favorable as high arousal level is maintained.

However, when it comes to difficult tasks, our performance will decline in spite of an increase in arousal level once we reach a certain level of arousal.

The reason is that being overly aroused may elicit overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system and make it quite difficult for us to concentrate.

Therefore, we generally perform best when our arousal is at a moderate level.

Applications of the Yerkes-Dodson Law

One useful application of the Yerkes-Dodson Law is for us to utilize knowledge about our personal motivation and optimal arousal levels to take control of our physical environment.

Taking control of our environment entails carefully studying the task at hand, determining whether the task can be considered an easy or a difficult one, and identifying what is required of us.

When working on a difficult task, we should make sure that our environment does not cause over arousal.

For example, we limit our exposure to noise and distractions in our environment by turning off the television, shutting off our phone or staying in a quiet room increase the chances of enhanced performance on the difficult task.

In cases where we can’t control our environment, we have the option to change the task that we need to perform. In a highly stimulating environment, we do better on simpler tasks than difficult tasks.

The principles of the Yerkes-Dodson Law, as well as the optimal arousal theory of motivation, may also be applied in numerous ways in workplace situations, wherein productivity, peak performance and job satisfaction are important issues.

Comparison with the Drive Reduction Theory of Motivation

The optimal arousal theory of motivation is quite similar to and borrows some concepts from Clark Hull’s Drive Reduction Theory of Motivation. However, while Hull’s theory focuses on a reduction of tension as the basis of motivation, the optimal arousal theory emphasizes the importance of a balance in arousal levels.


Arousal Theory of Motivation: AP® Psychology Review

The Arousal Theory of Motivation

Attention: This post was written a few years ago and may not reflect the latest changes in the AP® program. We are gradually updating these posts and will remove this disclaimer when this post is updated. Thank you for your patience! 

You may remember that the arousal theory is one of the many theories of motivation that help explain why we behave the way we do.

Motivation and Emotion make up 6-8% of the Advanced Placement Psychology exam, so mastering each theory and understanding its main concepts is a crucial part of studying for the exam.

In this Advanced Placement Psychology Crash Course Review, we will explore deeper what the arousal theory is, why it is important, how you can use it in your everyday life and how it can be tested on the AP® Psychology exam.

Motivation and Arousal

Motivation is often defined as all the internal factors that direct our behavior towards a goal. These can be needs, desires, ideas and feelings that explain why you do what you do.

For example, why are you studying AP® Psychology? Why do you want to spend a day playing a video game or reading a book or cooking a new recipe? What would motivate somebody to write a book, participate in a protest or do something boring in exchange for money? How can you raise your motivation or other people’s motivation so you can achieve a desired goal? Motivation and Emotion is the area of psychology that studies the whys behind our complex human behavior, seeking to answer these and many other questions.

Before the arousal theory came to be, other motivation theories were created to explain human behavior, and they are also covered in the AP® Psych curriculum, so pay attention to the differences between each one of them. These theories, namely the instinct theory and the drive reduction theory, were focused on the biological aspects of motivation and behavior.

The instinct theory was great for explaining animal behavior but not human behavior because there are only a few human behaviors that are truly instincts, and was, therefore, insufficient as a motivation theory.

The drive reduction theory stated that human beings are in a constant search for biological balance, called homeostasis.

As the name suggests, we would behave solely to reduce drives and tensions in our bodies, hunger and thirst.

However, that theory couldn’t explain why we also do things that seem to increase tension, such as playing a sport, reading a horror story or even something crazier bungee-jumping.

And so came the arousal theory, which kept the idea of balance, but in a slightly different way: instead of behaving only to decrease tension and stress by satisfying physiological needs, we also behave to increase arousal and excitement to avoid boredom and apathy. You could say that we are in search of just the right amount of excitement.

So when we feel bored, we seek activities that will increase our level of arousal, going out with friends, going to a party, playing a difficult game or reading an exciting book. And when we are too tense and anxious, we seek activities that will decrease our level of arousal, taking a nap, meditating, going for a walk in a park or soaking in a bathtub.

In neurological terms, the arousal theory states that part of our motivation is influenced by the mesolimbic dopamine system, responsible for our reward sensitivity. This reward system influences our physiological craving for more stimuli, which in turn makes us behave in a certain way, in the direction of a goal.

And here it’s important to note that each person has a different optimum level of arousal, or in other words, a different level of excitement in which a person feels comfortable and performs better.

When we are at the optimum level of arousal, we feel neither overly bored nor stressed and are thus able to perform tasks better.

This explains why you may have friends that are more than happy to spend the weekend by themselves reading a book and playing board games and other friends who prefer to wake up early to climb a mountain or stay up all night dancing to loud music: each is seeking their optimum level of arousal.

Generally speaking, people with a high optimum level of arousal tend to display risky behavior, driving at high speed and practicing dangerous sports. This is because they are motivated to seek extremely stimulating activities that will be perceived as rewards by their mesolimbic dopamine system.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law and how You can Use it

This is the original Yerkes-Dodson curve the original evidence from Yerkes and Dodson 1908. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Researchers Robert Yerkes and John Dodson studied the relationship between the level of arousal and performance in a task, and their finding is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that for easy tasks, the higher the level of physiological or mental arousal, the higher the performance.

But if the task at hand is difficult, a higher level or arousal will only increase performance until a certain point.

From that point on, a higher arousal hinders performance, because the person becomes too anxious and stressed and can’t concentrate on the task. The conclusion is that we usually perform better at moderate levels of arousal.

Imagine that you are taking a test (let’s say, the AP® Psych exam). If you are not sufficiently aroused, you feel boredom and apathy and is, therefore, incapable of engaging in the test.

But if you are too tense and anxious, you become unable to think clearly, make smart decisions and write proper answers.

For you to have your best performance in the test, you need to be in your optimum level of arousal, in which you are attentive, alert and thinking clearly.

The same goes for any other activity you may pursue, participating in a competition, playing an instrument or writing a report. The ideal situation is that you engage in activities that are the most suitable for your skill level.

Video games usually follow the Yerkes-Dodson Law beautifully, putting you in phases or making you fight against monsters that are neither too easy nor too hard.

That also helps explain why they can be addicting: it feels good to be at your optimum level of arousal.

Now, let’s put all these concepts into action to truly understand their importance to psychology and everyday life. Besides, one of the amazing points of learning psychology is that you not only gain interesting theoretical knowledge but also gain practical knowledge that you can use in your life to improve it.

Considering that the arousal theory is all about individual optimum levels of arousal, performance in tasks and the positive (or negative) effects that the environment can have on our behavior and motivation, a great way to start using this theory in your life is paying attention to your body in order to know what your optimum level of arousal is. When we are at the optimum level of arousal, we feel comfortable and balanced in a physical, intellectual and emotional way. Being conscious of your optimum level of arousal allows you to make better decisions about what to do next.

Let’s say you notice you have a lower optimum level of arousal, and you already had a busy week.

If a friend of yours invites you to a party on the weekend, you could make a better decision of whether you should accept or decline the invitation.

You could come to the conclusion that now all you want to do is relax and ignore the world the whole weekend, or you could conclude that you still can go to the party, but afterward you’ll get a great rest.

And if you’re the person with a high optimum level of arousal inviting a friend to a party and your friend declines, you could be more understanding towards him, not take it personally and just invite other friends who also need high levels of excitement in their lives.

Here’s another way to use the arousal theory and the Yerkes-Dodson Law in your day-to-day life: next time you have a difficult task waiting for you, studying for a test, meeting your partner’s family or going through the final stage of a video game, and you notice you’re feeling way too anxious, think of ways to change your environment or your internal world, so it won’t cause extra tension. A few ways to do this could be:

  • Taking a few long breaths to slow down your thoughts and your body in general
  • Turning off unnecessary noise that adds to the tension and makes you lose concentration, cell phone notifications or a TV in another room
  • Getting rid of any other kind of distraction such as a chat message or a dozen open tabs in your browser
  • Going somewhere else where there are fewer stimuli

But what if you’re in a workplace and can’t go around turning off people’s phones or telling people to stop talking for two hours or entering empty meeting rooms where you can concentrate better? A suggestion would be to simply switch tasks and do something easier while you’re in a high level of arousal until you reach a lower level and can then dedicate yourself to the harder task.

A Free Response Question Example

Now that you’ve mastered the arousal theory in this AP® Psychology Crash Course Review and understands what the Yerkes-Dodson Law is all about, take a moment to think about and try to answer the following Free Response Question (FRQ) example from 2000:

Your high school is proposing moving to a system in which grades are no longer given or used to evaluate student progress. Define each of the following concepts and state how each might either positively or negatively change student behavior under such a system.

Arousal theory (Yerkes-Dodson Law)

There are many possible ways to answer this question.

You could, for example, say that because there are individual differences in the optimum level of arousal, each student could behave in a more positive or negative way depending on the new system’s methods and structure.

A change in student performance would be noticed if the new activities that replace grades are considered to be easier or harder than the previous method. That is due to the relationship between arousal level, task difficulty, and performance.

To have students in their best performance, it would be necessary to find their optimum level of arousal, which is usually a moderate level, and then identify activities that would put them at that level.

If the new activities correspond to the optimum level of arousal, student behavior would be positively impacted.

If on the other hand, the new activities are too easy or too difficult, there would a negative influence on student performance and behavior.

If you’ve already learned about other motivation theories that can come up in the AP® Psych exam, you probably know that the arousal theory isn’t enough to explain what motivates all our behaviors. Be sure to read our other Crash Course Reviews to get a fuller picture of AP® Psychology!

So what do you think about the arousal theory of motivation? Do you think you have a lower or a higher optimum level of arousal? What are your strategies when dealing with difficult tasks? Let us know in the comments below!

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Arousal Theory of Motivation

The Arousal Theory of Motivation

The purpose of biological drives is to correct disturbances of homeostasis. According to drive-reduction theory, the body is motivated to engage in whatever behavior is necessary to fulfill an unsatisfied drive.

One way that the body elicits this behavioral motivation is by increasing physiological arousal. Arousal theory expands upon drive-reduction theory by taking into account levels of arousal as potential motivators.

While drive-reduction theory focuses primarily on biological needs as motivators, arousal theory examines the influence of the neural transmitter dopamine as a motivator in the body.

The Reward System

Arousal theory proposes that motivation is strongly linked to biological factors that control reward sensitivity and goal-driven behavior. Reward sensitivity is located in the mesolimbic dopamine system.

Research shows that individual differences in neurological activity in this area can influence motivation for certain goal-driven behaviors that will elicit a reward or satisfy a craving.

In this way, the reward system spurs physiological arousal, which motivates the individual to engage in whatever behavior is necessary to satisfy or relieve that arousal.

For example, substance use is associated with overactivity in the dopamine system; depending on how strongly an individual's brain interprets that as a «reward,» they may be more or less motivated to continue using that substance.

Dopamine pathways in the brain play an important role in the regulation of reward, which, in turn, motivates behavior. Some of the most important parts of the brain's reward center include the nucleus accumbens, the VTA, and the frontal cortex.

To show how the reward system works, Peter Milner and James Olds conducted an experiment in the early 1950s in which a rat had an electrode implanted in its brain so that its brain could be locally stimulated at any time.

The rat was put in a box that contained two levers: one lever released food and water, and another lever delivered a brief stimulus to the reward center of the brain. At the beginning the rat wandered around the box and stepped on the levers by accident, but before long it was pressing the lever for the brief stimulus repeatedly.

This behavior is called electrical self-stimulation. Sometimes, rats would become so involved in pressing the lever that they would forget about food and water, stopping only after collapsing from exhaustion. Electrical self-stimulation apparently provided a reward that reinforced the habit to press the lever.

This study provided evidence that animals are motivated to perform behaviors that stimulate dopamine release in the reward center of the brain.

Optimal Levels of Arousal

Theories of learning assert that there is an optimal level of arousal that we all try to maintain. If we are under-aroused, we become bored and will seek out some sort of stimulation. On the other hand, if we are over-aroused, we will engage in behaviors to reduce our arousal (Berlyne, 1960).

Research shows that moderate arousal is generally best; when arousal is very high or very low, performance tends to suffer. Researchers Robert Yerkes and John Dodson discovered that the optimal arousal level depends on the complexity and difficulty of the task to be performed.

This relationship is known as Yerkes-Dodson law, which holds that a simple task is performed best when arousal levels are relatively high and complex tasks are best performed when arousal levels are lower. 

The concept of optimal arousal in relation to performance on a task is depicted here. Performance is maximized at the optimal level of arousal, and it tapers off during under- and over-arousal. For easy tasks, a higher level of arousal generally increases performance; for harder tasks, a lower level of arousal is better.

Most students have experienced this need to maintain optimal levels of arousal over the course of their academic career. Think about how much stress students experience toward the end of spring semester—they feel overwhelmed with work and yearn for the rest and relaxation of summer break.

Their arousal level is too high. Once they finish the semester, however, it doesn’t take too long before they begin to feel bored; their arousal level is too low. Generally, by the time fall semester starts, many students are quite happy to return to school.

This is an example of how arousal theory works.

Temperament and Motivation

Traits impulsivity and sensation-seeking predispose people to engage in certain behaviors. These traits generally develop at a very young age (if not prenatally) as part of the individual's temperament. Temperament is defined as an individual's basic way of interacting and includes aspects frustration tolerance (i.e.

, the ability to withstand frustrating situations without getting upset), delay of gratification, and inhibition vs. impulsivity. All of these factors affect the individual's level of motivation to engage in certain behaviors. Fulfilling the impulse brings about a physiological reward similar to the rat pressing the button.


Some individuals are more sensation-seeking in that they have higher motivation to engage in arousing or physiologically stimulating activities.

These individuals are more ly to engage in risky behaviors driving fast, riding roller coasters, and other activities that get their adrenaline pumping.

wise, someone who is very impulsive and uninhibited might be very motivated to go buy a car on a moment's notice, as compared with someone who is very inhibited and has difficulty taking action. 


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