Understanding Self-Efficacy

Four women crossing the finish line in a race.
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The term self-efficacy refers to an individual's confidence in their ability to complete a task or achieve a goal. The concept was originally developed by Albert Bandura. Today, psychologists contend that our sense of self-efficacy can influence whether we actually succeed at a task.

Key Takeaways: Self-Efficacy

  • Self-efficacy refers to the set of beliefs we hold about our ability to complete a particular task.
  • According to psychologist Albert Bandura, the first proponent of the concept, self-efficacy is the product of past experience, observation, persuasion, and emotion.
  • Self-efficacy is linked to academic achievement and the ability to overcome phobias.

The Importance of Self-Efficacy

According to Bandura, there are two factors that influence whether or not someone engages in a particular behavior: outcome expectancy and self-efficacy.

In other words, our ability to achieve a goal or complete a task depends on whether we think we can do it (self-efficacy), and whether we think it will have good results (outcome expectancy).

Self-efficacy has important effects on the amount of effort individuals apply to a given task. Someone with high levels of self-efficacy for a given task will be resilient and persistent in the face of setbacks, while someone with low levels of self-efficacy for that task may disengage or avoid the situation. For example, a student who has a lower level of self-efficacy for math might avoid signing up for challenging math classes.

Importantly, our level of self-efficacy varies from one domain to the next. For example, you might have high levels of self-efficacy about your ability to navigate your hometown, but have very low levels of self-efficacy about your ability to navigate a foreign city where you do not speak the language. Generally, an individual's level of self-efficacy for one task cannot be used to predict their self-efficacy for another task.

How We Develop Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is informed by several main sources of information: personal experience, observation, persuasion, and emotion.

Personal Experience

When predicting their ability to succeed at a new task, individuals often look to their past experiences with similar tasks. This information generally has a strong effect on our feelings of self-efficacy, which is logical: if you've already done something many times, you’re likely to believe that you can do it again.

The personal experience factor also explains why increasing one’s self-efficacy can be difficult. When an individual has low levels of self-efficacy for a certain task, they typically avoid the task, which prevents them from accumulating positive experiences that might eventually build up their confidence. When an individual attempts a new task and succeeds, the experience can build up their confidence, thus producing greater levels of self-efficacy associated with similar tasks.

Observation

We also make judgments about our own capabilities by watching others. Imagine that you have a friend who is known for being a coach potato, and then that friend successfully runs a marathon. This observation might lead you to believe that you can become a runner too.

Researchers have found that our self-efficacy for a given activity is more likely to increase when we see someone else succeed at that activity through hard work, rather than natural ability. For example, if you have low self-efficacy for public speaking, watching a timid person develop the skill may help increase your own confidence. Watching a naturally charismatic and outgoing person give a speech is less likely to have the same effect.

Observing others is more likely to affect our own self-efficacy when we feel that we are similar to the person we are observing. However, in general, watching other people doesn’t affect our self-efficacy as much as our personal experience with the task.

Persuasion

Sometimes, other people may try to increase our self-efficacy by offering support and encouragement. However, this type of persuasion does not always have a strong effect on self-efficacy, particularly compared to the effect of personal experience.

Emotion

Bandura suggested that emotions such as fear and anxiety can undermine our feelings of self-efficacy. For example, you can have high levels of self-efficacy for making small talk and socializing, but if you're really nervous about making a good impression at a particular event, your sense of self-efficacy may decrease. On the other hand, positive emotions can generate greater feelings of self-efficacy.

Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control

According to psychologist Julian Rotter, self-efficacy is inextricable from the concept of locus of control. Locus of control refers to how an individual determines the causes of events. People with an internal locus of control see events as being caused by their own actions. People with an external locus of control see events as being caused by external forces (e.g. other people or chance circumstances).

After succeeding at a task, an individual with an internal locus of control will experience a greater increase in self-efficacy than an individual with an external locus of control. In other words, giving yourself credit for successes (as opposed to claiming that they happened because of factors beyond your control) is more likely to increase your confidence on future tasks.

Applications of Self-Efficacy

Bandura's theory of self-efficacy has numerous applications, including treating phobias, increasing academic achievement, and developing healthy behaviors.

Treating Phobias

Bandura conducted research related to the role of self-efficacy in treating phobias. In one study, he recruited research participants with a snake phobia into two groups. The first group participated in hands-on activities directly related to their fears, such as holding the snake and allowing the snake to slither on them. The second group observed another person interact with the snake but did not participate in the activities themselves.

Afterwards, the participants completed an assessment to determine whether they were still fearful of snakes. Bandura found that the participants who had directly interacted with the snake showed higher self-efficacy and less avoidance, suggesting that personal experience is more effective than observation when it comes to developing self-efficacy and facing our fears.

Academic Achievement

In a review of the research on self-efficacy and education, Mart van Dinther and his colleagues write that self-efficacy is linked to factors such as the goals students choose for themselves, the strategies they use, and their academic achievement.

Healthy Behaviors

Health psychologists have found that we are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors when we feel confident in our ability to successfully carry out those behaviors. For example, having higher levels of self-efficacy may help us stick to an exercise routine. Self-efficacy is also a factor that helps people adopt a healthier diet and quit smoking.

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