In my quest for mastery of motivation, I was doing some research and came across a theory of motivation with which I was not familiar. It is called the arousal theory of motivation. The theory states that we all have a certain level of arousal with which we are happy, our “optimum” level, and we are motivated (impelled) to maintain ourselves at that level. We will avoid a level that’s too high, and avoid a level that is too low.
The optimum level of arousal varies among people. This should not come as a surprise to anyone; all you need to do is look at the people in your family or your friends or your fellow employees to see how different we all are in the levels of arousal we seek. Cousin Joe drives a super powerful café style motorcycle, and occasionally likes to stand on the seat while he’s moving at 60 miles per hour, whereas Uncle Harry just likes to snooze in front of the television.
Our state of arousal is impacted by our physical, intellectual and our emotional experiences. The converse is also true, that is, we do the things we do because we are motivated to do them in our drive to maintain that optimum level. We want to maintain a certain level of arousal, and so we do (are motivated to do) the things that will keep us at that state of arousal.
Arousal theory explains why some people are thrill seekers. The level of arousal that makes them happy is very high, so it takes extreme physical activities like paragliding or motocross to make them happy.
But our arousal level isn’t related to just physical activities. It also relates to intellectual activities and emotional activities. Arousal theory can explain why some people love to learn, constantly reading non-fiction books, or collecting degrees. It can also explain the popularity of romance novels, as people seek to raise their emotional arousal to a level that makes them happy.
There is a fascinating corollary to the arousal theory of motivation called the Yerkes-Dodson law. It states that your performance on different tasks will be impacted differently by your arousal level. You performance on both simple and difficult tasks will initially be better as your arousal level starts to increase, but a point will come where your performance on the difficult tasks will suffer as arousal level increases. Your performance on the simple tasks, however, will not suffer by the increase in arousal level.
This is fascinating, but is there a way we can use this information to increase our motivation?
The way we use the Yerkes-Dodson law is by taking control of our physical environment. Our environment, along with how valuable our pursuit is and how confident we are in our competence, determines how motivated we are. Taking control of our environment means examining the task we are doing.
Is it a difficult task, or is it a simple task? If it is the former, we need to be extra careful that our environment does not over arouse us. Music blasting, television distracting, children running in and out, phone ringing, email announcements, are all going to raise our arousal level. A high arousal level is not what we want. If this is the situation you are facing, a difficult task and an over arousing environment, you have two options:
1) Change the environment, which means reducing the things in your environment that are arousing. Turn off the television, turn down the music, lock the door, silence your phone.
2) If you can’t change the environment, move to a less stimulating environment. Go to the library, or to the book store.
3) If you can’t change the environment, and you can’t move to a less stimulating one, change tasks. This just may not be the time to do a difficult task. Instead, find a simple task on which your performance will not suffer by the high arousal level of your present environment.
Can you think of another way we can use the Yerkes-Dodson law to be in charge of our environment? Please share your thoughts on this by leaving a comment for your fellow readers.