Arousal Definition

Arousal generally refers to the experience of increased physiological (inside-the-body) activity. This can include an increased (faster) heart rate, perspiration, and rapid breathing. In some cases, the term arousal is used to specifically refer to sexual feelings (and the resulting bodily changes). In essence, arousal is the bodily sensation of feeling energized. A person experiencing high arousal is active, animated, and/or alert, while a person who experiences low arousal is slow, sluggish, and/or sleepy.

Although many emotions (such as love and anger) include high arousal, it is possible to have arousal more or less by itself. Such a state is created by getting a dose of adrenaline (such as from an injection). Many people get this effect from a strong dose of caffeine. Being nervous, as before an athletic or musical performance, is much the same: The body is cranking up its energy level.

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Arousal Context and Importance

ArousalBecause arousal affects much of the body all at once, it has the ability to influence numerous aspects of people’ everyday experience. Within the context of social psychology, the experience of arousal has implications in a number of areas, including the experience of emotion, attitudes, lie detection, aggression, attraction, and love.

Experience of Emotion

The ability to experience emotion is one of the characteristics that distinguish humans from other animals. There are several theories that try to explain emotions. However, one theory focuses on how arousal, combined with the social environment, determines emotions. The two-factor theory of emotion, proposed by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer, states that when people are physiologically aroused, their emotional experience is determined by how they think about the arousal; in addition, other people are able to influence a person’s thoughts. For example, when graduating from high school, a person is likely to experience a heightened level of arousal. However, this arousal may be labeled as excitement when around friends or as anxiety/despair when around parents or former teachers. In both cases, the same bodily arousal becomes labeled as two different emotions depending on the social context.


Perhaps due to its links with emotion, arousal is also an indication of how strongly a person holds an attitude. For example, if you wanted to know how strongly a person felt about a political candidate, you could measure that person’s heart rate, perspiration, and so on. The candidate that elicits the most arousal is the one felt most strongly about. However, measuring arousal in this fashion cannot tell you whether the person likes or dislikes the candidate; just that they feel strongly.

Attitudes also have the ability to create arousal. This is likely when an attitude (e.g., “I love animals”) conflicts with another attitude (e.g., “Animals should be used for lab testing”), or with a behavior (e.g., “My fur coat looks great on me”). Lack of consistency among attitudes and/or behavior tends to produce feelings of tension and uneasiness (i.e., physiological arousal). According to Leon Festinger, people are motivated to relieve their aroused state by adjusting their attitudes to be more consistent.

Lie Detection

Arousal’s link to emotions, attitudes, and inconsistency make the measurement of physiological arousal a potentially useful tool for lie detection. A lie detector test measures various physiological indicators or arousal such as heart rate, breathing rate, and perspiration. The assumption is that lying (which is an inconsistency between what is true and what is reported to be true) produces arousal that can be detected by the machine. Unfortunately, as with the strength of attitudes, the machine can only assess the level of arousal, and not what may be causing it. For example, a person may be aroused because they are lying, or they may experience arousal because they are worried that they are accused of committing a crime.


Due to the energizing nature of arousal, it has a key role in helping us understand why people become aggressive. When people encounter any type of undesirable experience, arousal levels and aggression tend to increase. Unfortunately, a number of things have been found to produce increased arousal. These include high temperatures, crowding, pain, loud noises, violent movies, bad odors, and cigarette smoke. In each case, these factors produce heightened levels of arousal and the likelihood of increased aggression.

One reason is that arousal produced from one experience (e.g., being in a crowd) may be directed toward another target. A good example of this would be a person who gets stuck in traffic while driving home from work. Upon returning home after an hour of sitting in a hot car, listening to people honking their horns, a parent may yell at his or her child for no apparent reason.

This link between arousal and aggression has important implications for how people deal with anger. A common misconception is that acting aggressive in appropriate contexts (e.g., playing sports, playing video games) is a good way to decrease aggression. However, because these activities also increase arousal, they tend to increase (not decrease) aggressive feelings.


Just as arousal can transfer from one source to another to produce aggression, arousal also has the ability to produce positive feelings, such as attraction. In a famous study, Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron tested people crossing two bridges. One bridge was extremely high and shaky and heightened arousal. Another bridge was lower and sturdier, resulting in lower levels of arousal. To determine if arousal could produce attraction, they tested men’s reactions to a woman they met while crossing. The results indicated that men on the more arousal-provoking high bridge were more attracted to the woman.


The bridge study relied on general experiences of arousal. However, arousal can also be experienced in a sexual sense. One theory of love distinguishes passionate love (the type you feel toward a romantic partner) from companionate love (the type you experience toward a good friend). The key difference is that passionate love involves the feeling of sexual arousal (i.e., fluttering heart, feelings of anticipation, etc.) that is associated with the romantic partner. This connection is credited with the highly energized feelings that are produced at the mere sight of the beloved.


  • Foster, C. A., Witcher, B. S., Campbell, W. K., & Green, J. D. (1998). Arousal and attraction: Evidence for automatic and controlled processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 86-101.