What Is Self-Efficacy? Psychology, Theory, And Applications
Updated March 15, 2020
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
What Is Self-Efficacy?
Self-efficacy refers to a person's belief in their ability to achieve different outcomes according to their actions. The concept of self-efficacy was pioneered and popularized by psychologist Albert Bandura.
Self-efficacy can have a significant impact on an individual's goals, desires, actions, and accomplishments. People with high levels of self-efficacy believe that they are able to achieve what they set out to do, and this can often dramatically affect their actions. People with low self-efficacy, on the other hand, often believe that their actions don't matter, and that no matter what they do they won't be able to achieve their goals.
Self-efficacy is particularly important because it often has an outsized effect on human action. If you've ever quit a sport because you thought you'd never improve or achieved good grades in school despite setbacks, you've experienced different aspects of self-efficacy. Because self-efficacy affects behavior, those with high self-efficacy often achieve more than those with low self-efficacy, even if they have similar levels of natural capability and talent. Self-efficacy predisposes individuals to view themselves and the world in certain ways, with the result being that those with low self-efficacy consider themselves unequal to the task at hand, while those with high self-efficacy consider themselves competent and capable.
How Does Self-Efficacy Develop?
Self-efficacy develops during childhood and continues to grow and change throughout life. It is influenced by a variety of factors, including both personal and interpersonal circumstances. One of the most important factors in developing self-efficacy is to master activities, whether as simple as tying your shoes or as complicated as a thesis paper. Mastery of skills increases self-efficacy and encourages people to see themselves as competent and able to achieve their goals. In addition, repeated mastery of tasks and activities reassures people that they are able to succeed in what they set out to do.
Self-efficacy can also develop through social modeling, where people see others accomplishing similar tasks. Social modeling encourages individuals who identify with their peers to believe that they could accomplish similar activities. If others fail to accomplish the tasks that they set out to do, however, this can decrease self-efficacy.
People can also be persuaded into improving their self-efficacy. If you've ever had a pep talk from your best friend, a note of encouragement from a boss or supervisor, or an encouraging phone call from your mom, you're familiar with the power of persuasion when it comes to self-efficacy. However, persuasion can sometimes work in the opposite way, where self-efficacy is undermined through negative feedback and critique.
The mood can also influence self-efficacy, with a positive mood contributing to, and a negative mood detracting from, self-efficacy levels. Self-efficacy can be further developed by focusing on creating a positive mood and decreasing stress and negative emotions.
Effects of Self-Efficacy
Self-efficacy can have a significant effect on nearly every aspect of human life, from work to school, to personal relationships. One of the ways in which self-efficacy influences behavior is in goal setting. Individuals with high self-efficacy tend to set ambitious goals for themselves and are more likely to follow through with the things they set out to do. In contrast, those with low self-efficacy often shy away from difficult challenges and are easily discouraged.
Self-efficacy also helps people deal with uncertainty and setbacks when completing projects and goals. While those with low self-efficacy are often overwhelmed by rejection and obstacles, those with high self-efficacy can bounce back from setbacks and go on to achieve their goals. They're also able to better motivate themselves to achieve goals despite obstacles getting in the way. Low self-efficacy can result in and be exacerbated by depression and anxiety. Those with low self-efficacy often respond poorly to stressful situations, and easily give up or are disappointed.
Those with high self-efficacy often perform better at work and school, while those with low self-efficacy often fall behind and struggle to catch up. While this correlation is weaker when it comes to more complicated tasks, self-efficacy has been shown to help students and workers routinely achieve their goals.
Self-efficacy also has a significant impact when it comes to health. Those with high self-efficacy are more likely to believe that they can achieve their health-related goals. Especially when it comes to difficult health-related tasks like losing weight, quitting smoking, or overcoming addiction, self-efficacy can be key to enacting positive change.
Self-efficacy can also influence a variety of risk-taking behaviors, including using a seatbelt and practicing safe sex. Those with low self-efficacy are more likely to engage in risky behaviors since they see any potential consequences as out of their control. Those with high self-efficacy, on the other hand, are more likely to view their own actions as significant and to take precautions accordingly.
Self-Efficacy, Self-Esteem, and Self-Confidence
While self-efficacy, self-esteem, and self-confidence are all related and are sometimes used the same way, they aren't interchangeable. Self-efficacy refers to an individual's belief about whether they can achieve their goals through their actions. Self-efficacy includes a variety of beliefs about both the self and the world, with those with high self-efficacy believing in themselves and their ability, and those with low self-efficacy believing that they are unable to accomplish their goals.
Self-esteem, unlike self-efficacy, refers to a sense of self-worth. People with low self-esteem are likely to think that they are unworthy or are bad people. While self-efficacy can refer to specific tasks, self-esteem is usually more general. For example, someone who's a bad singer might have low self-efficacy when it comes to how they view their voice, but they wouldn't have low self-esteem unless they placed all of their self-worth on their ability to sing.
Self-confidence is a less specific term that generally refers to an individual's certainty about a given belief. While related to self-efficacy, self-confidence is not specifically about the belief in one's own capabilities. Self-confidence is often used more colloquially and in non-academic settings to one's general beliefs about oneself. While low self-confidence is usually considered a bad thing, low self-efficacy can merely reflect an accurate understanding of one's own capabilities. Although in general, it is a positive thing to have high self-efficacy, self-esteem, and self-confidence, self-efficacy is the only belief concretely tied to real-world action.
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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