Arousal Theory of Motivation: Definition, Examples, and Impact

The arousal theory of motivation states that people are motivated to seek out activities or situations that maintain or increase their level of arousal.

Arousal can be thought of as a continuum, with low levels of arousal being associated with boredom and high levels of arousal being associated with anxiety.

Yerkes Dodson Curve

What Is Arousal Theory?

The Arousal Theory of Motivation is a psychological theory that suggests that one’s levels of arousal play an important role in determining one’s level of motivation.

This theory states that individuals are motivated to seek out stimulation when they have low levels of arousal, but will become bored and unmotivated when they become too highly aroused (APA).

The Arousal Theory of Motivation was first proposed by Henry Murray in 1938. Murray’s theory was based on his observations of humans” needs for achievement, power, and affiliation. He believed that these needs were motivated by a desire to reduce one’s levels of arousal.

The Arousal Theory of Motivation has been further developed over the years by other psychologists, such as Robert Zajonc (1965) and John Atkinson (1957).

Zajonc proposed that there is an optimal level of arousal for task performance, and that individuals will seek out stimulation when they are below this optimum level.

Atkinson suggested that people have different “arousal thresholds” – meaning that some people require more stimulation than others to perform at their best.

According to the Arousal Theory, there are two main factors that influence one’s level of arousal: challenge and threat. When people face challenges or threats in their environment, it causes them to experience heightened levels of arousal. In turn, these higher levels of arousal can motivate people to take action or increase their efforts toward achieving a goal or objective.


There are two primary outshoots of arousal theory: Clark Hull’s drive reduction theory and optimal arousal theory.

Drive Reduction Theory

According to Clark Hull’s drive reduction theory, behavior originates from physiological needs for food, water, and air.

These needs create tension away from homeostasis. When needs are met in homeostasis, arousal is low. However, when needs are not met, they give rise to a drive state.

Animals are motivated to reduce this drive. Behaviors such as eating, drinking, and breathing reduce the need by restoring homeostasis. They can also be reinforced and strengthened through drive reduction.

According to drive reduction theory, people will often engage in risky or dangerous behaviors — like thrill-seeking or drug use — in an attempt to achieve a desired level of arousal.

Central to the concept of Drive Reduction theory is the idea of acquired motivation, which is the tendency for organisms to repeat behaviors that lead to drive reduction (Hull, 1952).

One essential criticism of Drive Reduction theory is that it does not account for all forms of motivation. In particular, it does not explain why people engage in activities that do not reduce drives, such as exploration and play.

Additionally, the theory does not explain how people can be motivated to achieve goals that may be impossible to achieve, such as winning the lottery or becoming an Olympic athlete.

A second criticism of Drive Reduction theory is that it relies heavily on animal research and does not take into account the unique needs and motivations of human beings. In particular, this research has recorded a phenomenon known as drive induction.

Drive induction is the observation that an animal’s motivation to reduce a drive can actually increase when the animal is placed in an environment where they are able to consume a reinforcer.

For example, if a rat is placed in a maze where the only food source is on the other side, the rat may experience an increase in motivation to move through if they had been able to eat the food freely at another time (Mills, 1978).

Optimal Arousal Theory

Optimal arousal theory posits that there is an ideal level of anxiety or stress that leads to peak performance.

This level is different for every individual, and can change depending on the task at hand. Too much or too little arousal will lead to suboptimal performance.

The theory was first proposed by Yerkes and Dodson in 1908, who found that there was an inverted-U relationship between task difficulty and performance.

That is, as task difficulty increased, so did performance up to a certain point, after which performance decreased. They attributed this to the fact that easy tasks do not provide enough stimulation, while difficult tasks provide too much stimulation.

The optimal level of arousal lies in the middle. In general, high arousal can improve performance on easy tasks and impair performance on difficult tasks.

Zuckerman (1984) wrote about sensation seeking in the context of optimal arousal theory. He considered it to be an individual difference trait, where people differ in how much stimulation they require in order to feel motivated and alert.

In other words, sensation seekers have a higher arousal threshold – they require more stimulation than the average person in order to feel engaged and interested.

This theory is supported by a great deal of research evidence, including studies on animals as well as humans.

For example, Zuckerman’s studies show that certain genes may be linked with sensation-seeking behavior.

Additionally, research has found that individuals who score high on tests of arousal motivation tend to prefer high-intensity activities such as extreme sports or drugs like cocaine (Zuckerman, 1984).



The optimal level of arousal theory can be applied to explain why people seek out social activities such as going to the club or attending a party.

According to the theory, people are motivated to seek out situations that provide the right amount of stimulation – not too much and not too little (Gross, 1998).

For some people, going to the club may provide the perfect level of stimulation. The loud music, bright lights, and social interaction may be just enough to get them feeling excited and engaged.

On the other hand, for others, the same environment may be overwhelming and lead to feelings of anxiety.

Thus, these people may prefer more relaxed activities such as reading or taking a walk in nature.

These activities provide a dis-attachment from arousal, bringing the person carrying them out back to homeostasis (Gross, 1998).


A classic example of arousal theory in action is hunger. One factor that contributes to the motivation to eat is the sensation of hunger itself.

For some people, feeling hungry can actually increase arousal and make them more motivated to find food.

This may be because hunger causes the release of certain hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that increase energy levels and alertness.

However, for other people, hunger may actually decrease arousal by causing feelings of sluggishness, fatigue, or distraction. This may be due to individual differences in sensitivity to certain hormonal changes associated with hunger.

Additionally, some individuals may have a lower arousal threshold, meaning that they are more quickly affected by hunger and require less stimulation to feel motivated.


Atkinson, J. W. (1957). Motivational determinants of risk-taking behavior. Psychological Review, 64 (6p1), 359.

American Psychological Association. (n.D.). The Arousal Theory of Motivation. The American Psychological Association Dictionary.

Gross, J. J. (1998). Sharpening the focus: Emotion regulation, arousal, and social competence. Psychological Inquiry, 9 (4), 287-290.

Hull, C. L. (1952). Clark L. Hull.

Mills, J. A. (1978). Hull’s theory of learning: II. A criticism of the theory and its relationship to the history of psychological thought.

Murray, H. A. (1938). Explorations in personality: A clinical and experimental study of fifty men of college age.

​​Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation.

Zajonc, R. B. (1965). Social Facilitation: A solution is suggested for an old unresolved social psychological problem. Science, 149 (3681), 269-274.

Zuckerman, M. (1984). Sensation seeking: A comparative approach to a human trait. Behavioral and brain sciences, 7 (3), 413-434.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

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Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.