Self-Efficacy Theory

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

What is self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy theory refers the idea that a person's belief in their ability to achieve different outcomes changes according to their actions. The concept of self-efficacy was pioneered as a unifying theory on human behavior and was popularized by psychologist Albert Bandura as a subset of his Social Cognitive Theory.

Self-efficacy beliefs can significantly impact an individual's goals, desires, actions, and accomplishments. People with strong self-efficacy believe they can consistently achieve their goals, which can often dramatically affect their actions. On the other hand, people with low self-efficacy often believe that their actions don't matter and that no matter what they do, they won't be able to achieve their goals.

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Learn general self-efficacy is particularly important because it often has an outsized effect on human behavior. For instance, when an individual quits playing a sport because they thought they’d never improve, they may have a low sense of self-efficacy.  Adversely, an individual with high self-efficacy may experience significant barriers to their school performance yet persist in achieving good grades. 

Because self-efficacy plays a role in behavioral change, 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 ill-equipped for the task at hand, while those with high self-efficacy consider themselves competent and capable.

How does self-efficacy develop?

According to self efficacy theory, 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 source of self-efficacy is mastering skills. Whether it’s simple or complicated, the mastery of skills increases your own self-efficacy and encourages people to view themselves as competent and able to achieve their goals.

Self-efficacy can also develop through social modeling. When people see others accomplishing similar tasks, social modeling encourages individuals who identify with their peers to believe that they could accomplish similar activities and improve self-efficacy.  However, failure by one’s peers to accomplish the tasks may decrease one’s self-efficacy. 

People can also be persuaded to improve their self-efficacy. For example, receiving encouragement from a colleague or friend may lead to feelings of greater self-efficacy. Alternately, positive self-efficacy can be undermined by negative feedback and critique. 

One’s 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

etty/Xavier Lorenzo

Self efficacy theory also describes how self-efficacy can have a significant effect on nearly every aspect of human life, including work, relationships, school, and more. One of the ways in which self-efficacy influences behavior is in goal setting. Individuals with high self-efficacy tend to set ambitious goals and are more likely to follow through with the things they set out to do due to self-belief and positive self-talk. In contrast, those with low self-efficacy often shy away from difficult challenges and are easily discouraged.

Self-efficacy also affects people’s ability to cope with uncertainty and setbacks when completing projects and goals. While those with low self-efficacy are often overwhelmed by rejection and obstacles, sometimes resulting in the development of depression or anxiety. Those with high self-efficacy can recover from setbacks and go on to achieve their goals. They're also able to better motivate themselves to achieve goals despite obstacles. 

According to a psychological review from the American Psychological Association, those with high self-efficacy often perform better at work and school, while those with low self-efficacy may fall behind and struggle to catch up. While this correlation is less clear regarding more complicated tasks, self-efficacy has been shown to help students and workers routinely achieve their goals by improving their own abilities.

Self-efficacy also has a significant impact on physical 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 bad people. While self-efficacy can refer to specific tasks, self-esteem is usually more general. For example, someone who's a sub-par singer might have low self-efficacy regarding their voice. But unless all their sense of self-worth is focused on their singing ability, their self-esteem doesn’t rely solely 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 may 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.

Measuring self-efficacy

There are self-efficacy scales available to measure one’s self-efficacy rating. One of these self-efficacy measures is called the General Self-Efficacy Scale (GSE) and it is used to test personal efficacy by measuring how much a person believes that they can make changes in life based on their own ability. The test has individual self-report measures that rate how much control they have. On average, researchers suggest that self-efficacy should be slightly above your actual capacity for achieving goals. A slightly above-average level of self-efficacy indicates an individual is capable of striving for better outcomes without setting unrealistic expectations. 

Those with lower indicators of self-efficacy levels often exhibit behaviors of underachievement and easily experience discouragement, even if the individual is completely competent. Those with an unusually high sense of self-efficacy may overestimate their competence.

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Some tips for improving self-efficacy:

Set goals

Setting and achieving reasonable goals is an important component of building self-efficacy. Since self-efficacy builds on mastery, experience, and success, regularly setting and achieving goals may gradually provide 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

Looking at the overall picture is also often helpful when trying to increase self-efficacy. While you might feel discouraged in your abilities after a few big disappointments, your colleagues, friends, and family likely feel differently. Taking the time to listen to the advice of those who know you well may 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

To improve self-efficacy, psychology experts may recommend managing stress. Low self-efficacy is often correlated with higher stress levels; managing that stress may be a key strategy for coping and persevering in the face of obstacles. There are many ways to manage stress, including meditation, time in nature, and therapy. Whatever works for you, reducing stress can have a positive impact on self-efficacy and can help you to achieve your goals.

Celebrate successes

Ambitious goals can sometimes feel distant or insurmountable. It can be easy to become discouraged and give up when it doesn't seem like you're making any progress. You can mitigate this feeling by celebrating smaller victories along the path to reaching your goal; for example, celebrating a productive day or the achievement of smaller milestones. Recognizing these smaller steppingstones as important achievements may help increase your self-efficacy and move you further along to your goal.


If you sometimes feel that you have little control over the outcomes of your behaviors, you’re not alone. While low self-efficacy is relatively common, there are practical ways to improve your sense of self-efficacy. One of those ways is to speak to a therapist. 

A licensed professional can help you identify the obstacles you may face when cultivating positive beliefs about your competency to complete your goals successfully. Increasing self-efficacy may improve mental health, psychology experts, such as therapists, may offer strategies for becoming more self-reliant. They may also work with you to devise a real-world strategy to cultivate healthy, long-lasting feelings of self-efficacy to cope with challenges in the future.

BetterHelp can connect you with a licensed online therapist with experience in working with clients on self-efficacy. Online therapy has been proven to be as effective as in-person therapy, and sessions can be conducted anytime, anywhere with an internet connection.
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