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Optimal Arousal Theory

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Optimal Arousal Theory

Have you ever noticed how some people thrive under pressure, while others crumble under it? One reason for this is the different ways people experience challenges. Some people enjoy the rush that comes with trying to complete a hard task, while others are easily overwhelmed by the same task.

  • What is the optimal arousal theory?
  • Why is the optimal arousal theory important in psychology?
  • How does the optimal arousal theory impact motivation?

Definition of Optimal Arousal Theory

Why are some people motivated to push through a hard task while others are too stressed to continue? Robert Yerkes and John Dodson (1908) studied this question. Based on their research, they developed the optimal arousal theory (OAT).

What is arousal in psychology? In Yerkes and Dodson's theory, arousal is the state of being alert, stimulated, and motivated. OAT is a theory that explains what causes motivation: the desire to engage in a task. Motivation is the difference between "I can do this!", and "I can't do this. It's too hard!"

Optimal Arousal Theory, a chalkboard with the word "can't" crossed out and the word "can" written instead, StudySmarterMotivation, pixabay.com

Yerkes and Dodson said that motivation is related to our level of arousal. They believed that our level of arousal determines our motivation. There is a negative and positive side to this. If we are aroused or stimulated too little (bored) or too much (overwhelmed), we will lack enough motivation to do the task. If we are aroused or stimulated just enough (challenged), we will be motivated to engage in the task.

Liana is a novice rock climber and she’s trying to find her next climb spot. She has three spots in mind that she wants to check out. The first spot took her an hour to finish, but she was left unsatisfied because she felt like it was too easy. The second spot she tried was too difficult and she left because she felt frustrated. The last spot was perfect for Liana because it took her around 2 hours, but it was exactly right in terms of difficulty. Liana chooses the second spot as her new location for climbing!

The OAT is all about the optimal level of arousal. Anything too hard or too easy won't keep us motivated. We have to keep challenging ourselves to stay interested in something. If we are optimally aroused and optimally motivated, we are also more likely to perform at an optimal level.

Your particular "sweet spot" in terms of arousal is unique to you. Your optimal level of arousal may look different than someone else’s. It will also change depending on the task. If you are good at math, your optimal level of arousal will be higher than if you struggle in math. The main idea is to determine and reach an optimal level of arousal so that you will be optimally motivated!

Jessie is having a tough time in his statistics class, so he asks his girlfriend, Rory, to tutor him. Rory agrees and shows Jessie that she studies by preparing a week ahead and practicing formulas for at least an hour. Jessie does not enjoy this and instead chooses to cram; he ends up getting a good grade. Rory tries to use the same method as Jessie but finds herself stressed out and unable to study.

The Importance of the Optimal Arousal Theory in Psychology

The OAT teaches us that how hard or easy a task is will influence our motivation. Something that is too hard for us or way too easy will lead to less motivation and probably negative results in our performance. The OAT helps us better understand why we might feel more motivated to engage in one task over another.

If you feel overworked in your job and struggle to get through your tasks, you might be super stressed (arousal is too high) or super bored (arousal is too low). If you need to become motivated to do something that you really don't feel like doing, either lowering your stress or increasing the difficulty of the tasks can help increase your motivation!

The Yerkes-Dodson Mice Experiment: Stress and the OAT

Yerkes and Dodson were interested in finding out how stress impacts our level of arousal. Too much stress can cause physical and mental health problems. You probably think of stress as a bad thing, right? Actually, small amounts of stress is a good thing! Yerkes and Dodson found that a certain amount of stress (an optimal amount) increases arousal and motivation.

Yerkes and Dodson designed a small maze for mice. They added black and white doors in the maze as options for the mice to select based on lighting. If a mouse chose the wrong door, the mouse experienced a mild electrical shock. The mild shocks kept coming until the mouse figured out that it needed to choose the other door.

These mild shocks actually improved the performance of the mice. Yerkes and Dodson experimented with increasing the voltage of the shocks. At a certain point, the performance of the mice peaked and started to decline. Continuing to raise the voltage caused more declines in performance. The mice were too stressed!

Other studies have replicated Yerkes-Dodson's study (without electric shocks) and produced similar results. A certain amount of stress increases our arousal and our motivation, and it improves our performance. That certain or "optimal" amount is different for each person and each task. If the stress gets too high, arousal goes up, motivation goes down, and performance goes down as well.

Motivation and the Optimal Arousal Theory

The OAT is all about how an optimal or moderate level of arousal is the best in terms of motivation. What if we are below or above this level of optimal arousal? What if we are aroused too little or too much? Well, Yerkes and Dodson both agreed that too little or too much arousal negatively impacts our motivation and performance.

Another word for arousal is stimulation. If a task doesn't stimulate us, we won't want to complete it. We might feel tired or bogged down by the task because it's so boring! If we are over-stimulated, this can stress us out. We might feel frustrated or overwhelmed because the task is just too hard. That doesn't mean it will always be too hard; it just means that we need to change our level of arousal or change something about the task. Human motivation functions best at a moderate level of arousal.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

The OAT is based on the Yerkes-Dodson Law. As you have probably guessed from the name, Yerkes and Dodson based this law on their studies about stress and motivation. The principle of this law is that arousal and motivation increase together until they reach a certain point. As soon as arousal passes an optimal level and becomes too high, motivation starts to go down.

Optimal Arousal Theory, a graph depicting the Yerkes-Dodson Law, StudySmarterYerkes-Dodson Law, Wikimedia Commons

John owns a restaurant and gets stressed out during the lunch rush. He notices that the stress of the lunch rush causes him to make mistakes as he works. When he purposefully works on staying calm, he doesn't feel as rushed and feels like he can handle things better. He also makes fewer mistakes! He now tries to maintain his composure (lower his level of arousal) whenever the restaurant starts to get hectic.

Optimal Arousal Theory - Key takeaways

  • Robert Yerkes and John Dodson (1908) developed the optimal arousal theory (OAT) based on their research.
  • In Yerkes and Dodson's theory, arousal is the state of being alert, stimulated, and motivated, and motivation is the desire to engage in a task.
  • Your particular "sweet spot" in terms of arousal is unique to you. Your optimal level of arousal may look different from someone else’s and can change depending on the task.
  • Yerkes and Dodson found that a certain amount of stress (an optimal amount) increases arousal and motivation.
  • The Yerkes-Dodson law states that arousal and motivation increase together until they reach a certain point. As soon as arousal passes an optimal level and becomes too high, motivation starts to go down.

Frequently Asked Questions about Optimal Arousal Theory

Optimal arousal theory is a theory that says motivation is dependent on our level of arousal. 

An example of the optimal arousal theory is a rock climber's motivation to keep climbing; if the climb is too hard or too easy, the climber will give up. 

Robert Yerkes and John Dodson proposed the optimal arousal theory of motivation.

Optimal arousal is important because our level of arousal determines our motivation.

The optimal arousal theory of motivation indicates that an optimal or moderate level of arousal is ideal for motivation.

Final Optimal Arousal Theory Quiz

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What is Optimal Arousal Theory?  

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The Optimal Arousal Theory posits that our motivation is dependent on our level of arousal. 

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What is an example of the optimal arousal theory?  

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Lorelai is a novice rock climber and she’s trying to find her next climb spot. She has three spots in mind that she wants to check out. The first spot took her an hour to finish, but she was left unsatisfied because she felt it was too easy. The second spot she went to was too difficult and she left because she got frustrated. The last spot was perfect for Lorelai because it took her around 2 hours, but it was exactly right in terms of difficulty. Lorelai chooses the second spot as her new location for climbing!   

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Who proposed the Optimal Arousal Theory of Motivation?  

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Robert Yerkes and John Dodson are the originators of the Optimal Arousal Theory 

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What year did Robert Yerkes and John Dodson propose the Optimal Arousal Theory of Motivation?   

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They proposed it in the year 1908 

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Why is optimal arousal important?  


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Optimal arousal is important because this is the best level of arousal to be on; we are the most motivated on this level.  

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What is the Optimal Arousal Theory of Motivation?  


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The Optimal Arousal Theory indicates that an optimal, or moderate, level of arousal is where we are most motivated.  

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Define arousal. 

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Arousal is referring to how alert you are

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Define motivation. 

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Motivation is the desire to do something 

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Does everyone have the same levels of arousal? 

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No. Arousal is unique to everyone, so your levels of arousal may look different than someone else’s. 

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Why did Yerkes and Dodson create their theory? 

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their reason for formulating this theory was to understand how various levels of arousal can increase or decrease motivation. Yerkes and Dodson also used the relationship between arousal and motivation to observe how it affects overall performance.  

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What is the Yerkes-Dodson Law? 

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The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that arousal can increase, but once it reaches a certain point, motivation will decrease and overall performance will lessen. 

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What happens if you have too much or too few levels of arousal? 

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If someone has low or high levels of arousal, their motivation and overall performance are negatively affected. 

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Give an example of the Yerkes-Dodson Law. 

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Luke owns a restaurant and gets stressed out during the lunch rush. He noticed that when he tried to stay calm, his work would become steady and he didn’t feel as rushed. He now tries to maintain his composure whenever the restaurant starts to get hectic. 

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Can you reach optimal arousal levels when you are at a high or low level of arousal? 

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Yes; you can increase or decrease your levels of arousal until you reach the level of optimal arousal. 

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What happens when you reach optimal arousal?

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When you reach optimal arousal, you are the most motivated and can perform well. 

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Fill in the blank: 

Yerkes and Dodson said that motivation is _____________ our level of arousal. 

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"related to" 

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Fill in the blank: 

Yerkes and Dodson believed that our level of arousal __________ our motivation.

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"determines" 

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What happens when we are aroused but stimulated too little? 

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We will lack motivation. 

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What happens when we are aroused and stimulated just enough? 

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We will have motivation. 

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Your optimal level of arousal may look different than someone else’s.

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True

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What is another word for arousal? 

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Stimulation 

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Yerkes and Dodson found that a certain amount of stress (an optimal amount) increases arousal and motivation. 

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True

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What does "O.A.T" stand for? 

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Optimal Arousal Theory 

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Annie is trying to finish her math homework but she keeps getting frustrated and decides to give up. What can you say about her level of arousal? 

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Annie is above her level of arousal (she is too stimulated). 

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Jason says he feels bored at work because he is always given tasks that can be done quickly. What can you say about Jason's level of arousal. 

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Jason is below optimal arousal (he is not stimulated enough). 

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Mary is a nurse, and although her line of work is very busy and active, she says that she enjoys the rush. What can you say about Mary's level of arousal? 

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Mary is at optimal arousal (she is stimulated enough). 

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Yerkes and Dodson found that a certain amount of stress (an optimal amount) increases arousal and motivation.

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True

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What animal did Yerkes and Dodson use in their experience when testing the different affects that stress can cause on our level of arousal and motivation? 

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They used mice 

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In the "Yerkes-Dodson Mice Experiment", did the mild shocks improve or lower the mice's performance? 

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The mild shocks improved the mice's performance. 

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In the "Yerkes-Dodson Mice Experiment", what happened when they increased the mild shocks into higher voltages? 

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As the voltage increased, the overall performance of the mice decreased. 

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