In this article, you will learn:
- What is Arousal Theory?
- What is Yerkes-Dodson Law?
- Optimal Arousal Theory Example
- Cognitive Arousal Theory
You must have observed many times that your favorite soccer player underperforms during an important match in the series.
If not, then you must have definitely experienced yourself underperforming while taking an important exam.
Do you know why it happens? Well, it’s because of the arousal theory of motivation.
In this article, we will define arousal theory and explain how optimal arousal can help you perform tasks well.
What is Arousal Theory?
Arousal theory is a theory of motivation asserting that individuals differ in the level of their physical energy or arousal. As a result, such differences cause major differences in the behavior or performance of individuals.
Also, the arousal levels may differ within individuals. As a result, an individual may feel energetic at certain times, while he may feel tired at other moments.
Arousal Theory Psychology Definition
APA Psychology gives the arousal theory psychology definition. Accordingly:
“The Arousal Theory of motivation states that the physical environment can affect arousal levels through stimulation and stress. Such stimulation or stress occurs when your psychological or physical needs are not met.
For instance, Arousal increases when an individual has a diminished personal space or when people are subjected to noise, traffic congestion, or other adverse conditions.
This is crowding. Crowding refers to the psychological tension produced in environments of high-density populations. This is because, in such environments, people feel that an insufficient amount of space is available for them to fulfill their needs.”
You must be aware, motivation is the driving force that influences you to make every effort to achieve certain goals. In other words, it is what drives you into action and directs your behavior.
Thus, motivation helps you to satisfy your needs or desires. How?
How Arousal Theory Works?
Well, your needs or motives produce drive (arousal). Further, the drive stimulates your behavior and leads you to take certain actions towards achieving your goals.
Thus, you get satisfied when you achieve your goals as the level of the drive reduces. However, you may experience physiological or psychological arousal (stress response) if you are unable to satisfy your needs.
Thus, an individual’s level of arousal mobilizes and regulates his stress response. Such a response typically embodies physiological, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional aspects.
As per the arousal theory, a general energetical system facilitates this stress response. The intensity of such a response impacts the performance of an individual.
Now, there are two principles that determine the relationship between the level of arousal and the performance of an individual.
The first principle states that this relationship is curvilinear. This means that an intermediate level of arousal is optimal for performance, that is, it is better than low and high arousal.
The second principle states that the optimal level of arousal and task difficulty are negatively correlated. This means more complex tasks have lower optimal arousal levels and vice versa.
Accordingly, the relationship between arousal and performance forms an inverted “U” curve when represented graphically.
These principles of arousal theory of motivation have their roots in the so-called ‘Yerkes-Dodson Law’ from 1908.
So, let’s understand the meaning of Yerkes-Dodson Law.
Also Read: Instinct Theory Explains Motivation
What is Yerkes-Dodson Law?
As per APA Psychology, the Yerkes Dodson Law is a law that states that the relationship between motivation (arousal) and performance can be represented by an inverted U-Shaped hypothesis.
The inverted U-shaped hypothesis is nothing but a correlation between motivation (or arousal) and performance. Such a correlation suggests that performance is poorest when motivation or arousal is at very low or very high levels.
In other words, an inverted U-shaped relationship exists between the strength of the stimulus and the rapidity of habit-formation for tasks differing in discrimination difficulties.
This function is the Yerkes–Dodson Law.
As per the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a subject’s motivation (arousal) level or emotional intensity increases from a zero point to an optimal point.
Thus, the optimum arousal level increases the quality of performance. However, the increase in intensity or arousal level after the optimal point deteriorates the subject’s performance and leads to disorganization.
Therefore, the relationship between the stimulus strength and the speed of learning forms an inverted U-shaped curve. Accordingly, the lower the arousal level, the poorer the performance.
This gave way to the Optimal Arousal Theory.
Optimal Arousal Theory
As per the Optimal Arousal Theory, optimal human performance requires a moderate level of emotional intensity or arousal.
Thus, a lower level of emotional intensity has a negative impact on your performance. This is because your performance suffers from insufficient physical and mental arousal.
However, a higher level of emotional intensity leaves you extremely aroused. As a result, your thought process and physical self-control become disorganized.
As per Yerkes-Dodson Law, the relationship between arousal and performance looks like an inverted U or bell-shaped curve when represented graphically.
An associated hypothesis is that the more challenging the task, the lower is the optimal level of arousal.
Hypothesis of Optimal Arousal Theory
To understand this hypothesis, let’s try to analyze the above graph taken from the journal titled: “The temporal dynamics model of emotional memory processing: a synthesis on the neurobiological basis of stress-induced amnesia, flashbulbs, and traumatic memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson law”.
Say, the performance measure on the vertical axis of the graph represents any type of mental or physical task. Whereas, the variable on the horizontal axis demonstrates the general level of arousal (both mental and physiological) or the intensity level of a specific emotion, such as fear or anxiety.
As we can see, an individual’s performance on the mental or physical task in question is relatively low at low levels of arousal (e.g., characterized by boredom).
As emotional intensity increases, the individual’s performance on the task reaches its peak at an optimum arousal level.
However, beyond this level, any additional emotional arousal (e.g., characterized by substantial anxiety) becomes counterproductive. Hence, it declines the performance of the individual on the task at hand.
Thus, this inverse curvilinear relationship between stimulus and task performance was first postulated by Yerkes and Dodson in 1908 through conducting experiments on rats.
This relationship is now documented in a sufficiently large number of studies with human beings.
Implications of Yerkes-Dodson Law in the Field of Psychology
Thus, psychologists have recognized various factors that are potentially responsible for the arousal-performance relationship.
As per their research, extremely low levels of arousal are demonstrated by individuals experiencing depression, melancholy, or boredom.
These emotional states are damaging to an individual’s performance. This is because the individual devotes less energy to gather information and solve problems.
Instead, he focuses his attention on other matters than the task at hand. As a result, obsessive thoughts or ruminations on non-task considerations block the individual’s memory.
Thus, this leads the individual to come under the grip of stress. It is because there now exists an imbalance between desired and actual stimulation. Further, even autonomic activity like heart rate, muscle tone, etc is at a low level.
Then, as the emotional intensity increases, it removes all such hurdles. The emotional intensity of an individual may increase as he shifts from depression toward anger or from boredom toward excitement.
Such an increased emotional intensity motivates the individual to increase the level of effort devoted to gathering information and solving problems.
Other responses include increased autonomic activity like increased heart rate, tensing of muscles, etc., an increased mental focus on the problem at hand, and an improved recall from short-term memory.
Thus, all these factors improve the individual’s performance. However, the performance improves until the arousal level reaches its highest level.
What Happens When Emotional Intensity Increases Even After the Optimal Level?
It is important to note that emotions play a concrete role in human behavior up to this point. This is because the increased emotional intensity helps him to generate an effective strategy to deal with the change.
However, a further increase in emotional intensity leads to a decline in the individual’s performance. This is quite evident in the graph above as the curve starts sloping downwards on the right side.
This means a percentage increase in the arousal level of the individual becomes negative. In other words, an individual’s arousal level is so high after the optimal level that it starts impacting his performance in a negative way.
As per evidence, high levels of emotional intensity or arousal of an individual:
- Block his access to short-term memory
- Disorganizes his logical or inferential thought processes
- Causes loss of control of body parts and functions like trembling hands, nausea, or headaches)
- Block out his rational considerations of benefit and cost, and
- Promotes acts of aggression and violence
Thus, an individual may lose his reasoning ability and get impulsive in high emotional intensity situations. Such high-intensity emotional situations may include infatuated love affairs, theater fires, and wartime battles.
Therefore, an individual’s emotional intensity beyond the optimal level becomes maladaptive with regard to coping with change.
Yerkes and Dodson’s Experiments To Showcase The Relation Of Strength Of Stimulus To Rapidity Of Habit-Formation
In their original paper published in 1908, Yerkes and Dodson conducted three sets of experiments on discrimination learning on dancing mice.
As a part of these experiments, the mice were to acquire the habit of discriminating between white and black boxes. And they were to acquire such a habit through receiving an electric shock of an intensity that did not cause harm to the mice.
The rats were given an electric shock once they entered a white box. However, the rats received no shock when they set foot into the white box.
First Set of Experiments
In the first set of experiments, Yerkes and Dodson gave shocks to the mice that were quite weak in intensity.
As a result, they observed that the mice took a long time to learn the habit of what they termed “perfection”.
Perfection for both Yerkes and Dodson meant that the mice must make 10 out of 10 correct discriminations consecutively for 3 days.
Then, the researchers conducted the second round of the experiment. Yerkes and Dodson increased the intensity of the electric shock (stimulus) in this experiment.
As a result, they observed that it took fewer trials for the mice to learn the habit of perfection.
Finally, the investigators conducted the third round of the experiment. In this experiment, Yerkes and Dodson gave mice an electric shock that was strongest in its intensity.
However, during such an experiment, both the investigators observed that the number of trials to learn the habit of perfection increased again.
The authors did not expect this observation as it was completely opposite to what they had contemplated.
Yerkes and Dodson hypothesized that the rate of habit formation would continue to increase with the increasing intensity of the electric shock (stimulus).
However, an average or medium degree of stimulation proved most favorable in such experiments.
After observing these elementary results, both Yerkes and Dodson concluded that they need to examine the relationship between the strength of the stimulus and the rapidity of learning more thoroughly.
Thus, the examiners decided that they would conduct another set of experiments.
Second Set of Experiments
In the second set of experiments, the examiners decided that they would make the discrimination task much easier.
To make the task easy, Yerkes and Dodson decided to allow more light to enter the white box. Further, they would use five instead of three levels of shock.
As expected, the learning speed of mice increased. However, such experiments did not produce the U-Curve as observed in the previous experiments.
The current set of experiments indicated that the electric shock (stimulus) of the weakest intensity still generated the slowest rate of learning.
However, the electric shock (stimulus) with the strongest intensity now resulted in more rapid learning.
Thus, Yerkes and Dodson observed that the results of the second set of experiments contradicted those of the first.
They hypothesized that the easiness of the discrimination task changed the relationship between the strength of the stimulus and the rapidity of learning.
This motivated the researchers to conduct the third set of experiments.
Third Set of Experiments
Yerkes and Dodson conducted the third set of experiments. They conducted these experiments to test the probability of the relationship between the stimulus strength and learning rapidity changing with the change in the level of difficulty of the discrimination task.
Accordingly, both the investigators made the discrimination task even more difficult relative to the one in the First Set of Experiments.
To make the task even tougher, Yerkes and Dodson allowed a lesser amount of light to pass through the black and white passageways.
Further, they introduced four levels of electric shock and exposed only two mice to each of the conditions. But, in the previous experiments, all four mice were exposed to each of the conditions.
Thus, both the researchers observed that the mice needed a number of trials in order to achieve perfection in the discrimination task.
Further, the most efficient level of learning appeared to occur at the second-weakest level.
Thus, Yerkes and Dodson concluded that both weak and strong stimulation can lead to slow habit-formation.
However, the stimulus strength resulting in rapid or favorable habit-formation would depend upon the nature of the task.
In other words, Yerkes and Dodson proposed through the mice experiment that as the level of difficulty of the discrimination task increased, the strength of the most favorable stimulus leading to habit-formation approaches the threshold.
Thus, the above conclusion was later called Yerkes-Dodson Law.
The Yerkes-Dodson law showcased certain interesting features.
- The law was discovered accidentally rather than theoretically. Further, Yerkes and Dodson anticipated a monotonic relationship. However, they observed a U-curve. Further, the researchers observed a linear function when they tried to replicate the U-Curve with an easier task.
- Although factually derived, the factual-basis of the law were unsystematic and faulty as per the modern standards.
Criticisms of Yerkes-Dodson Law
- The law was discovered accidentally and not theoretically. Further, Yerkes and Dodson expected a monotonic relationship. However, they found a curvilinear relationship between the strength of the stimulus and the speed of learning in case of habit-formation. The researchers also observed that when the task was made easy, the relationship was a linear function instead of a curve.
- Although the law was factually derived, the factual basis of the law in the experiments were quite unsystematic and faulty as per the modern standards.
- No statistical tests were performed as the curves were based on the averages from 2-4 subjects per condition
- The subjects of the experiments showcase a lot of inter-subject variability. Though, the researchers suggested that such differences did not invalidate the conclusions. One has to accept such an assumption as there is no statistical analysis.
- Their study is also questioned as the three curves are based on different stimulus strength values. Such a framework is unimaginable specially with regards to the current day’s experimenter who is acquainted with ANOVA.
- Further, the sample size of the subjects was too small that certainly questioned the conclusion of the study.
- Yerkes and Dodson did not make an attempt to prove the relationship between the strength of the stimulus and the speed of habit-formation to other areas. These areas may include other learning tasks, areas outside the field of learning, generalization to negative or positive stimuli, or moderation by the processes of memory, attention, and motivation. Though, both the researchers did make an attempt to generalize the results of the experiments across other species.
Optimal Arousal Theory Example
- An acutely depressed individual may typically have a low arousal level. However, he suffers from severe stress as a result of his inefficiency to resolve the problem and achieve goals.
- Professional athletes perform better in competitions than in training sessions. This is because they are under-aroused during training. However, the athletes are unlikely to perform well in major competitions like a World Cup. This is because they experience over-arousal at that point in time.
- Individuals who love thrill sports like skydiving engage in such sports because it makes them experience increased arousal levels. Such individuals typically have a high level of optimum arousal. Thus, thrill activities like skydiving help them maintain their increased arousal levels.
- An introvert typically has low levels of arousal. Thus, he may engage in activities like reading, writing, or painting to maintain his low arousal level.
- Another arousal theory example is of the experienced car drivers who may comfortably drive a car for longer distances while simultaneously listening to radio. This is because they need to engage in some sort of stimulating activity to cut boredom and achieve an optimum level of arousal. However, inexperienced drivers may not listen to radio while driving the car as they are already sufficiently aroused.
Cognitive Arousal Theory
The Cognitive Arousal Theory of Motivation is also referred to as the Schachter-Singer Two-Factor Theory. As per the Schachter-Singer Theory, both physical arousal and a cognitive label to such arousal are the two important elements of Cognitive Arousal Theory.
This means that to feel an emotion, only experiencing the physiological arousal is not sufficient. An individual must also recognize the arousal to feel the emotion.
In other words, an individual first experiences a physiological response the moment he is exposed to a stimulus. Then, such an individual cognitively labels such a physiological response in his mind and associates the same with the emotion. This is how he is able to feel the emotion.
Say for instance, you spot a snake while taking your evening walk in the park. You get frightened at such a sight and start sweating while slowly moving away from the snake.
The following are the sequence of steps that you experience in order to feel the emotion of fear:
- First, you spot the snake trying to cross the pathway. This acts as a stimulus for your brain.
- Next, your heart starts thumping and you begin sweating. These physiological responses lead to arousal.
- Then, you cognitively label the resulting emotion as fear as you associate the physiological responses to fear.
- Finally, you become consciously aware that you are experiencing fear.
Thus, Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer proposed the Two-Factor Theory of motivation in 1962.
1. In arousal theory, people are said to have a (an) _________ level of tension.
2. Which of the following is not part of hebb’s theory about “optimal levels of arousal”?
- A person can be too aroused to perform well.
- Person has the same optimal level of arousal for all stimuli.
- A person can perform poorly because they are not sufficiently aroused.
- Different activities have different optimal levels of arousal.
Ans: Option b
3. Which of the following is true of the optimal arousal theory?
- Arousal that is too high or too low does not negatively impact performance
- Difficult tasks are performed better at high levels of arousal
- Easy tasks can be performed with low, moderate, or high arousal
- Experts perform better alone, while novices do better with people watching
Ans: Option C
4. How does the arousal theory of motivation differ from drive-reduction theory?
Ans: The drive-reduction theory of motivation aims to bring back the human body to a state of Homeostasis.
This is because if your body deviates from the state of Homeostasis, it creates certain physiological needs. Such physiological needs lead an individual to certain psychological drive conditions.
Further, these psychological conditions direct your behavior to meet the physiological needs and bring your body back to a state of Homeostasis.
Say for instance, it’s been six hours that you haven’t eaten anything. As a result, your body’s glucose level comes down and hence creates a physiological need. Further, such a physiological need will instigate a drive state, that is, hunger in this case.
So, once you eat food, your hunger is eliminated and your body’s glucose levels are back to normal.
On the other hand, the arousal theory of motivation drives an individual to achieve an optimal level of arousal.
As per the arousal theory, if an individual is underaroused, he will get bored and as a result, will start looking out for some kind of stimulation.
Whereas, if an individual is over aroused, he will seek those behaviors that help him reduce his arousal levels.
For instance, during exams, it’s extremely important for students to maintain their calm during the exams. Students often get anxious during the exam days and as a result get overwhelmed. This certainly hampers their performance.
So, if students need to maintain an optimal level of arousal, they need to engage in behaviors that help them in keeping their calm.
This brings us to our next difference. The drive reduction theory of motivation focuses fundamentally on the biological factors as the source of motivation for humans. While the arousal theory of motivation analyzes the impact of the dopamine transmitter as the very source of motivating an individual.
Further, the drive-reduction theory of motivation focuses on reducing certain urges. Whereas, the arousal theory of motivation focuses on attaining an optimal level of arousal.
5. Which theory states that emotion results from the cognitive labeling of our physiological arousal?
Ans: The Schachter and Singer Two-Factor Theory of Emotion states that emotion results from the cognitive labeling of our physiological arousal.
In other words, as per Schachter and Singer Two-Factor Theory of Emotion, in order to feel an emotion, an individual needs to feel the arousal as well as identify the reason for such an arousal.
Thus, as per this theory, first the physiological arousal occurs in an individual. Then, an individual must recognize the reason for such a physiological arousal in order to experience the same and label it as an emotion.
Thus, Schachter and Singer Two-Factor Theory of Emotion is a cognitive theory where the thoughts and mental activities of an individual play a very crucial role in developing emotions.
6. Which of the following is something an advocate for arousal theory might observe?
- We become accustomed to boredom and learn to enjoy it.
- We become accustomed to excitement and learn to enjoy it.
- When we are bored we look for excitement; when we are over excited we wish for more peace.
- And when we are sleepy we should sleep; when we are hungry we should eat.
Ans: Option C
7. The arousal theory of motivation would be most useful for explaining an infant’s urge to ______.
The arousal theory of motivation states that individuals differ in their level of physical energy. As a result, these variations are the major cause of individual differences in behavior.
Further, the same individual may feel energetic at certain times. Whereas, he may feel tired at other moments.
However, the aim of an individual is to achieve the optimal level of arousal. Accordingly, if an individual feels under aroused, he may seek behaviors that help him achieve stimulation.
Likewise, when an individual is over aroused, he may engage in behaviors that reduce his arousal levels and bring it back to the optimal point.
Therefore, an infant’s urge to explore his surroundings is a result of the boredom caused by low arousal levels. So, to seek stimulation and increase his arousal levels, an infant seeks to explore his surroundings.
8. The arousal theory of motivation would be most useful for understanding the aversive effects of ___________.
The state of Boredom motivates an individual to pursue new goals or objectives as the earlier goals are no longer beneficial.
Such a pursuit allows an individual to achieve the goals that he could have failed to achieve in case he didn’t get motivated.
As per research, Boredom as an emotion impacts an individual’s behavior, physiology, cognition and experience.
So, when an individual experiences boredom, his focus or attention on the task at hand reduces. This means the experience of boredom has a negative and aversive effect on an individual’s performance.
Now, such an impact increases the individual’s autonomic arousal and this increase in arousal level prepares the individual to seek alternatives.
Thus, boredom acts as a source of motivation for the individual as it drives him to seek behaviors that bring a change from the current state.
It widens the opportunities for the individual to achieve social, cognitive, emotional, and experiential stimulation that otherwise could not have been attained.
9. Which theory is closest to the cognitive arousal theory?
- Cannon-bard theory
- Lazarus cognitive-mediational theory
- Common sense theory
- James-lange theory
Ans: The Lazarus Cognitive-Mediational Theory is closest to the Cognitive Arousal Theory.
As per the Cognitive-Mediational Theory
10. Which theory predicts a linear relationship between arousal and performance?
Ans: The Drive Reduction Theory predicts a linear positive relationship between arousal and performance. This means an individual’s performance is low at low levels of arousal whereas it increases with an increase in his arousal levels.
11. Which theory would be most helpful for explaining why people are motivated to watch horror movies or why recreational skydivers jump out of airplanes?
Ans: The arousal theory of motivation would be most helpful for explaining why people are motivated to seek thrilling activities like watching horror movies or engaging in recreational activities like skydiving.
As per the arousal theory of motivation, an individual seeks to achieve optimal level of arousal for performing well in tasks at hand.
However, these arousal levels may vary in different individuals. Also, an individual may experience high arousal levels at times and may have low arousal levels at other moments.
Thus, an individual having low arousal levels may seek activities or behaviors that maintain their low levels of arousal. Such activities may include reading a book or watching a movie.
However, an individual having high arousal levels may seek activities or behaviors that maintain their high arousal levels. Such activities may include watching horror movies or engaging in recreational sports like skydiving.
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