Self-Efficacy refers to an individual's belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). Self-efficacy reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one's own motivation, behavior, and social environment. These cognitive self-evaluations influence all manner of human experience, including the goals for which people strive, the amount of energy expended toward goal achievement, and likelihood of attaining particular levels of behavioral performance. Unlike traditional psychological constructs, self-efficacy beliefs are hypothesized to vary depending on the domain of functioning and circumstances surrounding the occurrence of behavior. Self-Efficacy Theory (SET) has had considerable influence on research, education, and clinical practice. In the field of health psychology, for example, the construct of self-efficacy has been applied to behaviors as diverse as:
- Self-management of chronic disease
- Smoking cessation
- Alcohol use
- Pain control
How Self-Efficacy Develops
Albert Bandura (1977) states individuals develop their self-efficacy beliefs by interpreting information from four main sources of influence.
- Mastery Experiences (Performance Outcomes): The most influential source is the interpreted result of one's previous performance, or mastery experience. When talking about Mastery experiences, this refers to the experiences one gains when they take on a new challenge and are successful at doing so.
"Mastery experiences are the most influential source of efficacy information because they provide the most authentic evidence of whether one can muster whatever it takes to succeed. Success builds a robust belief in one's personal efficacy. Failures undermine it, especially if failures occur before a sense of efficacy is firmly established" (Bandura, 1997).
One of the best proven ways to learn a new skill or to improve one’s performance in a given activity is by practicing. How can one be sure that practicing and acquiring new skills will lead to mostly positive experiences? In most cases, part of the reason this works so well is that people – unknowingly throughout this process - are teaching themselves that they are capable of acquiring new skills. This positive way of thinking – believing that one is capable of achieving tasks they set out for themselves – is a boon because part of the struggle of getting better at anything or learning something new is making sure the person believes they are capable of carrying out said task successfully.
- Vicarious Experiences (Social Role Models): The second important source of self-efficacy is through the vicarious experiences provided by social models.
Bandura (1977) posits that "Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers' beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities to succeed."
Vicarious experiences involve observing other people successfully completing a task. When one has positive role models in their life (especially those who display a healthy level of self-efficacy) - one is more likely to absorb at least a few of those positive beliefs about the self. Social role models including older sibling, older friends, camp counselors, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and employers.
- Social Persuasion: Receiving positive verbal feedback while undertaking a complex task persuades a person to believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed. Self-efficacy is influence by encouragement and discouragement pertaining to an individual’s performance or ability to perform (Redmond, 2010) For example, if one were telling an elementary school child that they are capable of achieving greatness and that they should set out to achieve anything their heart desires - this would be how verbal persuasion looks in action. Verbal persuasion works on any age, but the earlier it is administered the more it is likely to encourage building of self-efficacy.
- Emotional and Physiological States: The emotional, physical, and psychological well-being of a person can influence how a they feel about their personal abilities in a particular situation. For example, if you are struggling with depression or anxiety, one might find it harder to have a healthy level of well-being. Is it impossible to build self-efficacy while suffering from some of these struggles? Of course not, but boosting your self-efficacy is a much easier task when one is feeling healthy and well (Bandura, 1982).
However, Bandura (1977) states, "it is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted. People who have a high sense of efficacy are likely to view their state of affective arousal as an energizing facilitator of performance, whereas those who are beset by self- doubts regard their arousal as a debilitator."
Thus, by learning how to manage anxiety and enhance mood when experiencing challenging situations, individuals can improve their sense of self-efficacy.
Bandura wasn’t the only psychologist to delve into researching self-efficacy. One example of another influential self-efficacy researcher is James Maddux, who is actually responsible for suggesting the existence of a fifth main source of self-efficacy: imaginal experiences, or visualization (Maddux and Meier, 1995).
- Imaginal Experiences/Visualization: James Maddux (2013) has suggested a fifth route to self-efficacy through “imaginal experiences”, the art of visualizing yourself behaving effectively or successfully in a given situation". Imaginal experiences (or visualization) is basically someone attempting to portray their goals as achievable. It’s like the old saying that goes “it’s so close you can almost taste it” – visualization is about putting yourself (in your head) in a pole position to being capable of achieving anything one sets their mind to. With this method, in order to enhance one’s own self-efficacy or that of a child, the focus needs to be on painting a picture – making success seem as the most likely outcome (Maddux and Meier, 1995). By painting oneself or others in a favorable position, Maddux (1995) hypothesized that the levels of self-efficacy in said individual would rise given that they are now more susceptible – after portraying themselves at the finish line – to believe in themselves.
Theoretical Approaches to Self-Efficacy
- Social cognitive theory: Psychologist Albert Bandura has defined self-efficacy as one's belief in one's ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task. One's sense of self-efficacy can play a major role in how one approaches goals, tasks, and challenges. The theory of self-efficacy lies at the center of Bandura's social cognitive theory, which emphasizes the role of observational learning and social experience in the development of personality. The main concept in social cognitive theory is that an individual's actions and reactions, including social behaviors and cognitive processes, in almost every situation are influenced by the actions that individual has observed in others. Because self-efficacy is developed from external experiences and self-perception and is influential in determining the outcome of many events, it is an important aspect of social cognitive theory. Self-efficacy represents the personal perception of external social factors. According to Bandura's theory, people with high self-efficacy—that is, those who believe they can perform well—are more likely to view difficult tasks as something to be mastered rather than something to be avoided.
- Social learning theory: Social learning theory describes the acquisition of skills that are developed exclusively or primarily within a social group. Social learning depends on how individuals either succeed or fail at dynamic interactions within groups, and promotes the development of individual emotional and practical skills as well as accurate perception of self and acceptance of others. According to this theory, people learn from one another through observation, imitation, and modeling. Self-efficacy reflects an individual's understanding of what skills he/she can offer in a group setting.
- Self-concept theory: Self-concept theory seeks to explain how people perceive and interpret their own existence from clues they receive from external sources, focusing on how these impressions are organized and how they are active throughout life. Successes and failures are closely related to the ways in which people have learned to view themselves and their relationships with others. This theory describes self-concept as learned (i.e., not present at birth); organized (in the way it is applied to the self); and dynamic (i.e., ever-changing, and not fixed at a certain age).
- Attribution theory: Attribution theory focuses on how people attribute events and how those beliefs interact with self-perception. Attribution theory defines three major elements of cause:
- Locus is the location of the perceived cause. If the locus is internal (dispositional), feelings of self-esteem and self-efficacy will be enhanced by success and diminished by failure.
- Stability describes whether the cause is perceived as static or dynamic over time. It is closely related to expectations and goals, in that when people attribute their failures to stable factors such as the difficulty of a task, they will expect to fail in that task in the future.
- Controllability describes whether a person feels actively in control of the cause. Failing at a task one thinks one cannot control can lead to feelings of humiliation, shame, and/or anger.
How to Improve Self-Efficacy
Researchers suggest that self-efficacy should be slightly above your actual capacity for achieving goals. A slightly above-average level of self-efficacy ensures that you're always striving for bigger and better things, without shooting too high or aiming too low. A low sense of self-efficacy often results in people who underachieve and are easily discouraged, even when they are otherwise talented. Too high a level of self-efficacy, meanwhile, often leads people to overestimate their own competence. Here are a few tips for increasing self-efficacy:
- Set goals. Setting and achieving reasonable goals is an important component of building self-efficacy. Since self-efficacy builds on mastery and success, regularly setting and achieving goals can be a great way to gradually gain a new understanding of what you are capable of. It's important that the goals are within your reach since failing at a task can decrease self-efficacy. The more goals you achieve, the more likely you are to view your own capabilities in a different light.
- Maintain perspective. Getting a look at the bigger picture is also often helpful when trying to increase self-efficacy. While you might be down on yourself after a few big disappointments, chances are your colleagues, friends, and family feels differently. Taking the time to listen to the advice of those who know you well will help you to gain perspective on your situation and see things in a different light. Since verbal persuasion has been shown to increase self-efficacy, even a quick pep talk can have positive effects.
- Manage stress. Stress-management can be the key to overcoming difficult situations and persevering in the face of obstacles. Since low self-efficacy is often correlated with higher stress levels, it makes sense to think about reducing stress as a way of increasing self-efficacy. Whether you practice a few minutes of mindfulness, take a day off to reset, or just take a walk to clear your head, strategies for reducing stress can have a positive impact on self-efficacy and can help you to achieve your goals.
- Celebrate successes. No matter what the subject, an ambitious goal can often feel insurmountable and far away. It can be easy to get discouraged and give up when it doesn't seem like you're making any progress. You can mitigate this feeling by celebrating the little victories, whether that means a solid eight hours of work toward your goal, a small milestone recently achieved, or even just words of praise from a supervisor or friend. Turning these smaller stepping stones into reasons to celebrate will help increase your self-efficacy and move you further along to your goal.
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