Arousal Theory of Motivation: AP® Psychology Review | (2023)

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, like 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 like 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, like 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, like 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, like 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

Arousal Theory of Motivation: AP® Psychology Review | (1)

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, like 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, like 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, like 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!

Let’s put everything into practice. Try this AP® Psychologypractice question:

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