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The Need for Arousal


Explanations > Needs > Arousal

Hot and coldPreferences | Acclimatization | So what?


One of our deepest needs is for a sense of arousal where we are stimulated and 'feeling alive' in a 'hot' state. In this state we are energized in in any combination of cognitive, affective and physical arousal. In the CIA Needs Model, arousal completes a basic triad along with the more fundamental Control and Identity needs.

Hot and cold

Our state of arousal can described with a hot and cold temperature metaphor, where 'hot' is aroused and 'cold' is not aroused. A hot state is related to high levels of interest, emotion or activity. In a cold state we may be bored, flat and lethargic.


We each may have particular preferences for any of three different types of arousal. Some will seek the cerebral arousal of thinking and learning. Others find pleasure in physical activity. And each leads to different emotions. This can also lead to different personality types based on the desire for arousal and internal thresholds.

We have varying preference for levels of arousal, with 'sensation seekers' being more easily bored and preferring higher levels of arousal, while others find high levels of arousal to be scary or overwhelming.

In a dysfunctional sense, some people get stuck in unhelpful arousal, such as being a victim or self-harming. Children at school may also decide that learning is not cool and so shun intellectual arousal. In attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) sufferers have a low natural arousal level and seek to stimulate themselves through excessive activity that leads to an inability to sustain attention on one subject.


A trap with arousal is that the stimulation we feel works mostly through the perceptual contrast between how we felt before and how we feel now.

But people are supremely adaptable and what was fun can easily become the norm. A typical solution to this is to seek greater and great stimulation. This can become a slippery slope that descends into destructively addictive positions.

The effect happens too with negative arousal and is is one reason why children become immured to punishment and so keep being 'naughty'.


Seeking arousal can be a deliberate act as we plan to inject a little fun into our lives. It may also be impulsive, where risks are considered less. A personality with a greater need for arousal will see it as a natural act and may view those who seek less arousal as 'boring'.

Figner et al (2009) offer a simple 8-question instrument to identify the need for arousal, in which a higher need is identified by such as variety and risk that lead to thrills and excitement. This is in comparison with a lower need for arousal where routines, safety and predictability are preferred, typically because arousal causes stomach-churning tension.

Extraverts and introversion may seek arousal differently, with the extraverts seeking it externally, typically through contact with other people, while introverts tend to be more stimulated by their internal thoughts (and can be over-stimulated by external forces).


So what?

Arousal is the basic motivated state which is good for persuasion as you can tap this basic desire.

When persuading people, consider how they are aroused now and how you want that state to change. Do you want them to feel intellectually stimulated? What about being emotionally charged (and maybe more unthinking)? Do you want them to physically act, to get up and do something?

Seek ways to manage how they are aroused (or not, as you need). Stimulate them or calm them down as appropriate.

See also

The Need to Learn, Curiosity, Novelty, Stimulation, Fight-or-Flight reaction, Games, The Purpose of Art, Arousal principle, Emotional Arousal, Arousal Conflict, Entertainment Preferences, Arousal and Addiction, Yerkes-Dodson Law


Figner, B., Mackinlay, R. J., Wilkening, F., & Weber, E. U. (2009). Affective and deliberative processes in risky choice: Age differences in risk taking in the Columbia Card Task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35, 709-730.

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