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Arousal Thresholds


Explanations >  Motivation > Arousal Thresholds

Thresholds and states | Boredom threshold | Comfortable state | Overwhelm threshold | So what


We all have a need for arousal, although needs are different per person. This can partly be understood through separating arousal states into three groups, as divided by two thresholds.

Thresholds and states

At any time we are in a particular emotional and mental state. We may be angry, sad, thoughtful, sleepy, alert and so on. An interesting question is how we transition between these states. This typically happens by triggering, where some cue flips us between states. This may be a single event. it may also occur where a variable quantity builds up steadily until the mounting pressure tips over the threshold into the next state.

Sometimes this transition across the threshold between states is sudden and very distinct. Sometimes also there is a slower transition through a 'gray zone'.

This effect happens with stimulation and arousal where there are two significant thresholds and three states, as below:



Overwhelmed, too much arousal


Overwhelm threshold


Comfortable, acceptably aroused


Boredom threshold


Bored, insufficiently aroused


Zero arousal


Boredom threshold

Below the boredom threshold we do not have enough stimulation to keep us happy. We are aroused very little and sit in the bored state..

Some people seem be happy here, or at least are not motivated enough to get out and get aroused. They effectively have a low boredom threshold and even low levels of arousal tip them into the comfortable state. This is the state where apathy and sloth can become  a trap, where the lack of arousal leads to a lack of motivation to become aroused, even if we know we would be happier there.

Some have a higher threshold and need significant stimulation just to feel interested and alive. These are the kinds of people who take risks and take part in extreme sports.

Most people find the bored state uncomfortable, certainly for any length of time. They want to create meaning in their lives and this provides motivation enough to get them seeking more stimulation.

Comfortable state

In the state above the boredom state, we generally feel comfortable. For most people this is not so much in a do-nothing relaxed way as in a stimulated, interested sense. We are aroused and active, interested in the world around us and ready to act and create our meaning.

Overwhelm threshold

Above the lower boredom threshold and at the top end of the comfortable state, there is a higher threshold after which the person becomes overwhelmed, feeling increasing discomfort and stress.

This pattern is clearly shown in the Yerkes-Dodson Law, where a person's performance declines after they pass the overwhelm threshold. As the pressure and arousal increases, they start satisficing, desperately seeking not the best solution but any solution that will decrease the discomfort they are feeling.

In the higher reaches of the overwhelm state the person may break down emotionally, weeping controllably and collapsing hysterically on the floor. They mentally turn inwards as they seek to flee the external conditions that are causing the discomfort and may even become catatonic.

So what?

Arousal is very significant in changing minds. To teach people you need them to be alert. To sell to them, you want them excited about the product. Even negative arousal such as fear may be effective.

It is said that 'a drowning person will clutch at a straw' and this hurt and rescue principle is surprisingly common.

See also

Pain Thresholds, Yerkes-Dodson Law, Arousal Personality Types


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