This article originally appeared here on July 5, 2019.
When facing a challenge, do you feel like you can rise up and accomplish your goal or do you give up in defeat? Are you like the famous little train engine from the classic children’s book (“I think I can, I think I can!), or do you doubt your own abilities to rise up and overcome the difficulties that life throws your way? Self-efficacy, or your belief in your own abilities to deal with various situations, can play a role in not only how you feel about yourself, but whether or not you successfully achieve your goals in life.
The concept of self-efficacy is central to psychologist Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory, which emphasizes the role of observational learning, social experience, and reciprocal determinism in developing a personality.
According to Bandura, a person’s attitudes, abilities, and cognitive skills comprise what is known as the self-system. This system plays a major role in how we perceive situations and how we behave in response to different situations. Self-efficacy is an essential part of this self-system.
According to Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” In other words, self-efficacy is a person’s belief in his or her ability to succeed in a particular situation. Bandura described these beliefs as determinants of how people think, behave, and feel.
Since Bandura published his seminal 1977 paper, “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change,” the subject has become one of the most studied topics in psychology. Why has self-efficacy become such an important topic among psychologists and educators? As Bandura and other researchers have demonstrated, self-efficacy can have an impact on everything from psychological states to behavior to motivation.
Our belief in our own ability to succeed plays a role in how we think, how we act, and how we feel about our place in the world. Self-efficacy also determines what goals we choose to pursue, how we go about accomplishing those goals, and how we reflect upon our own performance.
Virtually all people can identify goals they want to accomplish, things they would like to change, and things they would like to achieve. However, most people also realize that putting these plans into action is not quite so simple. Bandura and others have found that an individual’s self-efficacy plays a major role in how goals, tasks, and challenges are approached.
People with a strong sense of self-efficacy:
- View challenging problems as tasks to be mastered
- Develop a deeper interest in the activities in which they participate
- Form a stronger sense of commitment to their interests and activities
- Recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments
People with a weak sense of self-efficacy:
- Avoid challenging tasks
- Believe that difficult tasks and situations are beyond their capabilities
- Focus on personal failings and negative outcomes
- Quickly lose confidence in personal abilities
How does self-efficacy develop? These beliefs begin to form in early childhood as children deal with a wide variety of experiences, tasks, and situations. However, the growth of self-efficacy does not end during youth but continues to evolve throughout life as people acquire new skills, experiences, and understanding.
According to Bandura, there are four major sources of self-efficacy:
1. Mastery Experiences
“The most effective way of developing a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences,” Bandura explained. Performing a task successfully strengthens our sense of self-efficacy. However, failing to adequately deal with a task or challenge can undermine and weaken self-efficacy.
2. Social Modeling
Witnessing other people successfully completing a task is another important source of self-efficacy. According to Bandura, “Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers’ beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities to succeed.”
Bandura also asserted that people could be persuaded to believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed. Consider a time when someone said something positive and encouraging that helped you achieve a goal. Getting verbal encouragement from others helps people overcome self-doubt and instead focus on giving their best effort to the task at hand.
4. Psychological Responses
Our own responses and emotional reactions to situations also play an important role in self-efficacy. Moods, emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels can all impact how a person feels about their personal abilities in a particular situation. A person who becomes extremely nervous before speaking in public may develop a weak sense of self-efficacy in these situations.
However, Bandura also notes “it is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted.” By learning how to minimize stress and elevate mood when facing difficult or challenging tasks, people can improve their sense of self-efficacy.
So what exactly does high self-efficacy look like? You can probably think of some examples from your own life including areas where you feel a great deal of efficacy. People may possess a general sense of self-efficacy or in a specific domain where they believe they can do well such as school, work, friendships, parenting, sports, hobbies, and other areas.
Some examples of strong self-efficacy include:
- A student who feels confident that she will be able to learn the information and do well on a test.
- A woman who has just accepted a job position in a role she has never performed before but feels that she has the ability to learn and perform her job well.
- A man who is struggling to manage his chronic illness but feels confident that he can get back on track and improve his health by working hard and following his doctor’s recommendations.
Self-efficacy can play an important role in health psychology and how people manage their health, nutrition, and illness. For example, having a strong sense of self-efficacy can help people who are trying to quit smoking stick to their goals. Maintaining a weight loss plan, managing chronic pain, giving up alcohol, sticking to an exercise schedule, and following an eating plan can all be influenced by a person’s levels of self-efficacy.
Bandura suggests that self-efficacy can benefit a person’s sense of well-being in a number of ways. Because individual’s with high self-efficacy look at difficulties as challenges rather than threats, they tend to be more intrinsically interested in the tasks they pursue. Difficulty and failure don’t mean defeat; instead, these individuals redouble their efforts and look for new ways to overcome. They remain optimistic and confident in their abilities, even when things become difficult.
People who are low in self-efficacy tend to see difficult tasks as threats they should avoid. Because of this, they also tend to avoid setting goals and have low levels of commitment to the ones they do make. When setbacks happen, they tend to give up quickly. Because they don’t have much confidence in their ability to achieve, they are more likely to experience feelings of failure and depression. Stressful situations can also be very hard to deal with and those with low self-efficacy are less resilient and less likely to bounce back.
Strength of Self-Efficacy
There are a number of different scales that are used to evaluate levels of self-efficacy including the General Self-Efficacy Scale (GSE) and the Self-Efficacy Questionnaire. For a quick, informal assessment of your own self-efficacy levels, consider the following questions:
- Do you feel like you can handle problems if you are willing to work hard?
- Are you confident in your ability to achieve your goals?
- Do you feel like you can manage unexpected events that come up?
- Are you able to bounce back fairly quickly after stressful events?
- Do you feel like you can come up with solutions when you are facing a problem?
- Do you keep trying even when things seem difficult?
- Are you good at staying calm even in the face of chaos?
- Do you perform well even under pressure?
- Do you tend to focus on your progress rather than getting overwhelmed by all you still have to do?
- Do you believe that hard work will eventually pay off?
If you can answer yes to many or most of these questions, then chances are good that you have a fairly strong sense of self-efficacy. If you feel like your self-efficacy could use a boost, consider some of the following strategies for improving your sense of efficacy.
Fortunately, self-efficacy is a psychological skill that you can foster and strengthen. Start by looking for ways that you can incorporate Bandura’s sources of self-efficacy into your own life.
Celebrate Your Success
Mastery experiences play a critical role in the establishment of self-efficacy. Bandura actually identified this as the single most effective way to create a strong sense of self-belief. When you succeed at something, you are able to build a powerful belief in your ability. Failure, on the other hand, can undermine these feelings, particularly if you are still in the early phases of building a sense of personal efficacy.
The ideal sorts of successes, however, are not necessarily those that come easily. If you experience a lot of easy success, you may find yourself giving up more readily when you finally do encounter failure. So work on setting goals that are achievable, but not necessarily easy. They will take work and perseverance, but you will emerge with a stronger belief in your own abilities once you achieve them.
Bandura also identified vicarious experiences obtained through peer modeling as another important means of establishing and strengthening self-efficacy. Seeing others putting in effort and succeeding, as a result, can increase your belief in your own ability to succeed. One factor that plays a key role in the effectiveness of this approach is how similar the model is to yourself. The more alike you feel you are, the more likely it is that your observations will increase your sense of self-efficacy.
Seek Positive Affirmations
Hearing positive feedback from others can also help improve your sense of self-efficacy. By that same token, try to avoid asking for feedback from people who you know are more likely to have a negative or critical view of your performance.
For example, your doctor telling you that you are doing a good job sticking to your diet plan can be encouraging. Feedback from friends, mentors, health practitioners, and people who you respect can help you feel greater confidence in your own abilities.
Positive social feedback can be helpful for strengthening your already existing sense of efficacy, but negative comments can often have a powerful undermining effect. Bandura suggested that soocial feedback alone is not enough to build your self-belief, but it can be a useful tool when you need a little extra encouragement.
Pay Attention to Your Thoughts and Emotions
If you find yourself getting stressed out or nervous before a challenging event, you might feel less sure of your ability to cope with the task at hand. Another way to boost your self-efficacy is to look for ways to manage your thoughts and emotions about what you are trying to accomplish. Do you feel anxious? Looking for ways to ease your stress levels can help you feel more confident in your capabilities. Do you find yourself dwelling on negative thoughts? Look for ways to replace negativity with positive self-talk that promotes self-belief.