Arousal Theory of Motivation

Motivation can be defined as a reason (or reasons) which lead an individual to act in a certain way. The reasons might not always be the same between two individuals acting in a certain way, but almost every action is directed by certain motivation. Different theories have been proposed over the years to explain motivation, one of which is Arousal Theory of Motivation.

[Related article: Drive Reduction Theory of Motivation]

The theory states that the major reason people are driven to perform any action is to maintain the optimal level of physiological arousal. The optimal level of arousal varies from one person to the next. Arousal is one of the fundamental aspects required for attention and information process. So, maintaining the optimal arousal level is vital for a person’s task performance. Research has shown that psychological factor responsible for arousal of motivation also has a relationship with the performance. Studies have indicated that even a minute amount of drop in the arousal can have a negative or positive effect in the performance of the individual.

How does Arousal Theory of Motivation Work?

The arousal theory of motivation suggests that each individual has different arousal level that is perfect for them. The theory also suggests that we tend to seek for our own stimulation in order to maintain our optimal level of arousal.

For instance, we go to night out with friends at a club or someplace where we can get our arousal elevated again when we’re down. But, arousal levels don’t always drop and there’s a good chance that energy levels are too elevated. In those cases when you’re too pumped up, taking a nap or going for a relaxing walk might help you soothe your arousal level again.


 The key assumption of the arousal theory is that

Every action we perform is pursued by our motivation to maintain an ideal balance.

We tend to perform actions that drop our arousal level when we feel over stimulated and we seek out activities that get our blood pumping when our arousal level is below the optimal level.

When we’re bored, we might engage in invigorating activities like motorcycle racing or bungee jumping in order to reach that level of arousal balance. But, it’s not to say that every individual requires or fancies the same sorts of activities. They might get their energy pumped up by dancing or exercising.

Likewise, we tend to relax our body and mind with actions like sleeping or listening to music when we are over aroused. Maintaining the right balance keeps our arousal level optimal, and in lots of ways also keeps us healthy both psychologically and physiologically.

Arousal and performance

Arousal theory of motivation’s one major assertion is that the level of arousal of an individual directly influences his/her performance. This phenomenon is also 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.

The basic idea is that arousal level must be optimal for efficiency to be at the peak. For instance, you will be at your maximum focus while taking a test when your arousal level is optimal. However, should you develop unnecessary arousal level, you will start experiencing test anxiety, nervousness that leave you unable to concentrate and give out your 100%. When arousal level is further away from the optimal level either very high or very low, performance tends to be the worst. 

[Learn more: Theories of motivation]