Arousal Theory of Motivation

What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning, making a coffee or an egg sandwich? What motivates you to go to your job, adopt a cat, rent an apartment, or download a dating app? 

The answer to these questions aren’t always the same, and they even change from day to day! You may feel motivated to do a great job at your work one day, but the next day you don’t even want to clock in. One weekend you might want to go clubbing with your friends, but the next weekend you just want to stay inside and read a book. 

The truth is psychologists don’t have one solid answer on motivation. There are many theories of motivation that have been floating around for decades. And while some of these theories play off of each other, none of them stand alone as the one theory on what motivates us to take action. By understanding each theory, you will get a peek into what psychologists believe about why we take action and how we make decisions. 

One theory on motivation is the arousal theory of motivation. Let’s talk about this theory and how it might explain why you are motivated to do certain things or take certain actions. 

Arousal in Psychology 

Before we dive into arousal theory, you must know that I’m not talking about that type of arousal. Arousal is a word used in psychology to describe a sense of alertness and consciousness. When people are in a state of arousal, they are consciously aware of and seeking out information about what is going on around them. 

According to Csikszentmihalyi (the guy who first talked about being in a state of flow), arousal takes place when we are faced with a big challenge but aren’t using a high level of skill to attack this challenge. When we are really pushing ourselves and are using skills that we have obtained and continue to grow, we enter a state of flow. When we are pushing ourselves too hard or having to use skills that we have not yet obtained, we become anxious. 

The Yerkes-Dodson Law has a similar theory about arousal. These psychologists believe that our ability to complete tasks increases with a certain level of arousal, but too much arousal can hinder us. You might have experienced this while attempting to solve a problem that makes you uncomfortable. A certain amount of concentration will help you complete the problem, but once you start to get overwhelmed by your fear, people talking around you, or other stimuli, you start to lose your ability to focus and can’t complete the task anymore. 

What level of arousal is too much? The answer depends on the task. It doesn’t take much arousal to help you concentrate on picking out your clothes in the morning or pressing the “snooze” button. But when you have to get in your car and drive to work, you better hope the stimulants in your coffee have kicked in! 

This ties into the arousal theory of motivation. 

What Is the Arousal Theory of Motivation? 

The Arousal Theory of Motivation suggests that we seek a balance between stimulation and relaxation. Like the Yerkes-Dodson Law, we are finding that sweet spot where we feel our best. Too much stimulation and arousal and we will seek out less arousing activities and relax. Too little stimulation and arousal and we will seek out thrilling or challenging activities. 

This might explain why you might find yourself wanting to go out and see people more than you ever have before after months of lockdowns, or why you prefer to rest and relax after a big night on the town. If we’re not in that “sweet spot” of arousal, (also known as “optimal arousal”) we are motivated to balance things out and get there. 

What Is Optimal Arousal?

How does this explain your friend who wants to go clubbing every night of the week and your roommate who gets overwhelmed by going to a bar once? Well, everyone’s arousal levels are different. According to psychologists, this theory is extremely personal and may even vary over the course of a person’s life. Heck, it might even change with changes in your mood. Either way, the cravings you have to eat or the sudden desire you have to head to the gym and burn off a bunch of calories may both be explained by the arousal theory of motivation. 

High- and Low-Arousal Activities 

The activities that increase or decrease your level of arousal may be personal as well – but in general, stimulating and challenging activities are considered “high-arousal.” If you feel the need to challenge yourself or stimulate your senses, consider the following activities: 

  • Go for a bike ride
  • Watch a scary movie 
  • Do a crossword puzzle
  • Go to a rock show 
  • Invite friends and family over 
  • Try out a new recipe 

If you find that you feel too stimulated or overwhelmed, try these low-arousal activities:

  • Take a nap
  • Listen to quiet music
  • Meditate
  • Watch a TV show that you’ve already seen 
  • Do a calming craft that you are comfortable with (paint-by-numbers, knitting a simple scarf) 
  • Have a drink of water 

Remember, the right balance is personal to you. You might feel overwhelmed by an activity that your friend wants to do – that’s okay. You may just seek out different levels of arousal or have been hit with different levels of stimuli recently!

How Does This Fit In With Other Theories of Motivation? 

Arousal theory is not the theory of motivation that has been tossed around the world of psychology. In fact, it was just proposed as a response to another theory of motivation: the drive-reduction theory. 

Drive-Reduction Theory 

This theory is similar to the arousal theory of motivation but focuses more on the internal needs within the physical body. Psychologists who proposed the drive theory of motivation suggested that we are motivated by internal needs that we try to reduce through certain actions. Our motivation to drink a glass of water comes from an internal feeling of thirst. Our motivation to stop eating our meals appears when we are no longer hungry. 

Drive-reduction theory is all about reaching homeostasis, or a balance in the body. In this way, arousal theory and drive-reduction theory are similar. We are always aiming to be in a state of balance. But rather than trying to reduce a need, arousal theory states that we are always motivated to reach a state of arousal. 

Expectancy Theory 

How do we know that we will be fulfilled by going for a bike ride or taking a nap? The expectancy theory of motivation has the answer. This theory suggests that we are motivated to do things based on our expectations of their outcomes. If we believe that taking a certain action will yield a positive result, we are more likely to do it, whether or not we label that positive result as “reducing a drive” or “reaching a certain level of arousal.” If we anticipate that we will feel good after mountain biking, we will go mountain biking. If we think that our senses will be activated in a positive way after eating a cheeseburger, then we will eat a cheeseburger. These two theories work together to explain why we make certain decisions. 

Incentive Theory 

Like expectancy theory, incentive theory can work with arousal theory, although neither is a response to the other. Incentive theory states that we are motivated by external and internal rewards. Take the way we train a dog to sit or why we go to work every day. The dog wants treats and we want a paycheck. It feels good on the inside to be making money and we are able to “treat” ourselves with the paycheck we receive every two weeks or so. 

How does this play into arousal theory? One could argue that arousal is an internal or even an external reward (considering that we enter a state of arousal when our senses are stimulated by external stimuli.) But like some theories of motivation, this is the extent of the overlap between the two theories of motivation. 

Critiques in Motivation Theory 

Of course, these theories, along with other theories of motivation, don’t explain everything. A hungry vegetarian may know that they’ll enjoy the taste of a cheeseburger, but they will opt to stay hungry until they get to the next fast food place where there are more vegetarian-friendly options. Someone might choose mountain biking over going clubbing, even though both of these activities promise a high level of arousal. And we may push ourselves to go out and stimulate our senses even when we are tired or just want to relax. 

The truth is that the arousal theory of motivation is just one way to look at motivation, and it doesn’t encompass every decision we make or action that we take. No theory does. But understanding each theory and what it entails can offer clues into why we behave the way we do, how we can change our behaviors, and how we can adjust our motivation to become the person that we want to be.


Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.