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A surfer is about to attempt to ride the biggest wave she has ever seen. Her heart is pounding with fear, and she is not sure if she can make it without wiping out, but she attempts to ride the wave anyway. Explain this behavior in terms of the following theories of motivation and emotion.
  1. Achievement motive
  2. Arousal theory
  3. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  4. Cannon-Bard thalamic theory
  5. Opponent-process theory 

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Achievement motivation acts on our desire for success.  What causes this desire varies greatly from individual to individual, and so we can’t say anything definitive about the surfer’s motivations (whether they are intrinsic or extrinsic, i.e. whether she is riding the wave for personal reasons or whether she chances it because she wants to improve for a contest), but we can say that she is attempting the massive and intimidating wave because she wants to be a better surfer.  The idea here is that our achievements define us, and she is motivated by the desire for excellence.  If she manages to ride the wave, she has made an achievement in her sport, which is cause for personal satisfaction.  Even if she doesn’t ride the wave, she has attempted, which is in itself a satisfaction.

The arousal theory of motivation is based on the idea that people seek out activities that will help them maintain an ideal level of arousal.  For example, if you’re bored on a Saturday night, your arousal levels are low, and you will most likely seek out some activity to stimulate you – going out with friends or seeing a concert, something tailored to the individual that maintains a balanced level of interest.  Under this theory, the we can assume that the surfer is a thrill-seeker, someone whose optimal levels of arousal are fairly high – in this case she chooses to ride the wave in order to raise her levels of arousal; that is, to keep herself interested and keep the activity relevant.  It is possible, however, that she is not a thrill-seeker – her fast-beating heart is a possible indication that she is over-shooting in seeking arousal, in which case her performance as she rides the wave will suffer. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is often represented as a pyramid of motivational factors; when a person’s most basic needs are met (those at the base of the pyramid), any actions performed by that person are said to be motivated by the needs defined on the next tier of the pyramid, working one’s way up to self-actualization, the highest motivator, which can only be “activated” after having secured all the needs on the pyramid prior to it.  In order, these needs are biological and physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs.  So a person who has just moved to a new town will only actively strive to meet new people (social) after he has found a secure place to stay (safety), and this only after he has satisfied those biological needs we all must satisfy to stay alive – proper food, water, health, etc.  In the case of the surfer, we can assume she is not struggling with any biological or safety needs – she feels secure in her abilities, her health, and the ultimate safety of the wave or else she wouldn’t attempt to ride it.  Social needs don’t explicitly factor in because there is no mention of anyone else in this scenario.  So we can assume that her motivation falls within either esteem or self-actualizationEsteem needs are driven by a desire for achievement and independence, qualities which would emphasize the surfer’s abilities.  By attempting to ride the wave she is searching for the growth and affirmation of these qualities within herself.  If this need is self-actualization, she is seeking to realize her own potential.  We cannot know exactly which need she is fulfilling because they are driven by personal perceptions and goals.

The Canon-Bard Thalamic Theory is a theory of emotion that would explain the surfer’s pounding heart.  The surfer sees the wave, and it stimulates both the emotion fear and the physical reaction attributed to fear simultaneously.  This theory was proposed in opposition to other leading theories that the physiological responses to stimuli precede and cause the resulting emotion.  Instead, the emotion is interpretable only with reference to the physical manifestation.  Because a racing heart may be a sign of several different emotions, it is possible that what the surfer is feeling is not actually fear, but excitement, which would modify the arousal theory analysis above.

The opponent-process theory is another theory of emotion positing that the experience of a particular feeling at first may overshadow its opposite, but over time the opposing feeling will take precedence and edge out the initial feeling.  Addiction is a prime example of this: with prolonged exposure to some addictive substance, an individual’s feeling of pleasure after contact lessens, and it is instead the misery of withdrawal that forces the continued behavior.  So by stimulating one emotion, its opposite is also being stimulated, and with the lessening of the initial emotion the opposing emotion manifests itself.  Our surfer is feeling fear at the sight of the huge wave before her – according to this theory, she is also therefore experiencing the opposite of fear – this could be relief, it could be excitement.  As she rides the wave, this fear will dissipate and be replaced with whatever opposing emotion she is feeling, and as she continues in her surfing career, the more often she is faced with these intimidating waves, the more often she will approach them with excitement or relief, and the more her fear will diminish.  According to this theory she is unconsciously conditioning herself emotionally to these sorts of waves.

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