What Is Self-Efficacy?

(Last Updated On: August 23, 2022)

Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to succeed in certain situations. Your sense of self-efficacy has a major influence on how you approach challenges and goals.

When confronted with a challenge, do you believe that you can succeed? Or are you convinced that you will fail? People with strong self-efficacy are those who believe that they are capable of performing well. These people are more likely to view challenges as something to be mastered rather than avoided.

According to psychologist Albert Bandura, the sense of self-efficacy is important to social learning. Bandura’s social learning theory focuses on how personality is shaped by social experience and observational learning.

In this article, learn more about what self-efficacy is, how it develops, and the impact it can have on your life.

What Is Self-Efficacy?

Self-efficacy is essentially the belief in your own ability to control your own behavior, emotions, and motivations. It is your belief that you can solve a problem, reach a goal, complete a task, and achieve what you set out to do.

Definition: Self-efficacy refers to your belief in your own ability to control your motivation and behavior.

For example, a student who has a high level of self-efficacy in mathematics will feel confident in their ability to do well in a challenging statistics class. Even if they are not exceptionally skilled at this particular type of math, their strong self-belief can help give them the motivation and will to persist even when it’s difficult.

Psychologists are interested in many different aspects of self-efficacy. They often look at it from a number of different psychological perspectives. For example, psychologists are interested in:

  • How self-efficacy develops
  • How it influences motivation
  • How it impacts child development
  • How environmental variables affect self-efficacy
  • How self-efficacy and self-concept are related
  • How cognitive processes influence self-efficacy

How Strong Is Your Self-Efficacy?

If you want to know whether your self-efficacy is high or low, answer the following questions:

  • Do you find it easy to stick to your goals and ambitions?
  • Do you feel like you could cope if something unexpected happened?
  • Are you able to stay calm when things don’t go as planned?
  • If you are having a problem, do you feel able to come up with solutions?
  • Do you trust yourself to handle problems as they arise?
  • Are you able to keep trying even after facing a setback?
  • Do you feel like your efforts will help you make progress?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, then your self-efficacy is probably quite strong. Even if your belief in your abilities is low, however, there are things that you can do to build faith in your own talents and skills.

How Self-Efficacy Influences Behavior

Self-efficacy can influence how people behave, including the motivation they have to pursue their goals.

It plays an important role in determining which goals you choose to pursue. If you believe there is little likelihood that you can succeed in a task, you are much less likely to pursue it in the first place.

Consider your own goals, both large and small. Perhaps you have plans in your daily life, such as hitting the gym, reading a book, or organizing your closet. You also have much bigger life goals such as earning a degree, finding a good job, finding a partner, buying a house, and having children.

The amount of self-efficacy you possess can have an influence on how you pursue and whether or not you achieve these goals.

High Self-Efficacy

People who have higher levels of self-efficacy:

  • Tend to view the challenges they face as things to be mastered.
  • Instead of feeling discouraged by obstacles, they see it as an opportunity to learn new things, acquire new skills, and grow as a person.
  • Setbacks are inevitable in life, but people with a strong sense of self-efficacy are more likely to recover quickly.
  • They also tend to be more involved in the pursuit of their goals and take a more active role in the activities in which they participate.
  • Feel more intrinsically motivated to pursue goals.

Low Self-Efficacy

By contrast, people with a weaker sense of self-efficacy may tend to:

  • View challenges as overwhelming and something to be avoided.
  • Get discouraged and give up when they face obstacles in reaching their goals.
  • Avoid getting deeply involved and are less committed to groups and activities.

Self-efficacy can also play a role in health and healthy behaviors. For example, it can affect how much people persist in changing risk behaviors (such as quitting smoking or sticking to an exercise regimen).

Research suggests that many choices that directly impact health—including physical exercise, seat belt use, self-exams, dental hygiene, and smoking—are all dependent on self-efficacy, at least in part.

Levels of self-efficacy help control how people initiate health choices and behavior changes as well as how well they stick to their health resolutions.

How Self-Efficacy Develops

Bandura described a number of different sources of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy begins to form early in childhood and is essential to self-knowledge.

As children have new experiences and gain new knowledge, they gain a better understanding of themselves and others. Their experiences with different tasks, people, and situations help contribute to this continually growing and evolving sense of self-efficacy.

Bandura suggested that four primary sources contribute to the development of self-efficacy.

1. Mastery Experiences

Bandura believed that successfully tackling hands-on experiences is the best source of self-efficacy.

“Enactive 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,” he explained.

“Successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy. Failures undermine it, especially if failures occur before a sense of efficacy is firmly established.”

Albert Bandura

2. Vicarious Experiences

Observational learning can also play a role in the development of self-efficacy. By watching others, people can gain vicarious information that plays a role in their belief in their own abilities.

Watching other people model behavior or skill can be an important way of learning, but it can also play a role in how well we think we would be able to perform that task. This can be particularly true when we observe people who we feel are very similar to us performing a task or exhibiting a skill

“Efficacy appraisals are partly influenced by vicarious experiences mediated through modeled attainments. So modeling serves as another effective tool for promoting a sense of personal efficacy,” Bandura suggested

3. Verbal Persuasion

Social pressure and verbal persuasion can also play a role in the development of self-efficacy. Essentially, people can be convinced that they can succeed at a task through positive verbal encouragement.

“It is easier to sustain a sense of efficacy, especially when struggling with difficulties, if significant others express faith in one’s capabilities than if they convey doubts.”

Albert bandura

“Verbal persuasion alone may be limited in its power to create enduring increases in perceived efficacy, but it can bolster self-change if the positive appraisal is within realistic bounds,” he also suggested.

4. Physical and Mental States

When judging their ability to complete a task, people rely partly on information from their physiological and emotional states. Stress levels, moods, emotions, and arousal levels all play a role in helping people determine if they are capable of tackling a challenge.

If you are facing a difficult task and you feel shaky, stressed, and unsure, then it is unlikely that you will have the efficacy to overcome the challenge.

Examples of Self-Efficacy

You can better understand how self-efficacy influences your life by considering a few examples. A few examples of how having high self-efficacy can help motivate behavior include:

  • If a person trying to lose weight has high self-efficacy, they will feel more motivated to stick to their eating and fitness plan. Because they believe in their own ability to succeed, they may feel more empowered to take actions that support those goals.
  • A person who has just been diagnosed with diabetes will feel more confident that they can self-manage the condition and follow their doctor’s treatment plan if they feel a strong sense of self-efficacy.
  • A person who has experienced a job loss will feel better about seeking new employment opportunities or even considering new career directions if their self-efficacy levels are high.

In each of these examples, people face a challenge but feel ready and capable of meeting the demands presented by that challenge. Because they feel that they have the capability to succeed, the challenges they face seem manageable.

So what happens if people have low self-efficacy? In many cases, they avoid setting goals or taking on challenges because they don’t think they are capable. Rather than try and risk failure, they simply avoid trying at all.

Low self-efficacy often leads people to give up quickly when they are faced with difficult or stressful situations.

Because they feel like they failed in these situations, it further impairs self-efficacy and can contribute to feelings of depression.

How to Build Your Self-Efficacy

So what can you do to improve your belief in yourself and your ability to succeed?

Gain Experience

Bandura believed that the best way to foster self-efficacy was to build confidence through mastery experiences. You can do this by practicing moderately difficult but still doable tasks.

As you successfully perform these tasks, you’ll become more confident and secure in your abilities. This task mastery also provides a solid foundation for acquiring more advanced skills.

Break Down Difficult Tasks

If you are facing a task that seems overwhelming, work on breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps. For each step, develop a plan to help you accomplish the task successfully.

As you work through a big project, looking at what you’ve accomplished so far and seeing your plan of action for managing the rest can help you feel more empowered and less overwhelmed.

Foster a Growth Mindset

Your mindset refers to whether you see abilities as innate or set in stone or if you see them as something you can learn and strengthen.

While people with fixed mindsets tend to give up when things get difficult, those with a growth mindset tend to see challenges or mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.

Seek Encouragement

Knowing there are people who are in your corner and believe in your ability to succeed can help you feel better about your own chances for success. Friends and colleagues can be great sources of support. If you are trying to achieve a health goal, your doctor or therapist can also offer positive affirmations and feedback.

If you lack social support from people in your life, joining a support group can be a great way to meet people with similar experiences who are able to offer encouragement and comfort.

Find a Peer Mentor

Observing and learning from successful people can be a great way to build your own self-efficacy. Bandura believed that watching others perform a task and succeed led to vicarious learning. This approach is more likely to be effective if you choose mentors who are similar to you.

Change Negative Thoughts

Negative thought patterns can be detrimental to self-efficacy. For example, a person who thinks “I’m bad at this” is less likely to feel like they have the ability to succeed.

When you notice yourself engaging in negative thoughts or experiencing cognitive distortions such as catastrophic or all-or-nothing thinking, make it your goal to actively challenge these thoughts and replace them with more realistic ones.

For example, instead of thinking, “I’m bad at this,” you might think, “I’m still learning, but I can do this.”

Summary

Self-efficacy is your belief in your own ability to succeed in any given situation. This sense of self-belief develops in childhood but continues to grow and change throughout life. Because your self-efficacy has a powerful impact on your behaviors and motivations, finding ways to strengthen it can help you achieve your goals and feel good about yourself.


Frequently Asked Questions

Why is self-efficacy important?

Self-efficacy affects how you feel about yourself and your abilities. It can determine whether you feel motivated to pursue a task and how your feel about your ability to succeed. Ultimately, it impacts whether you pursue and follow through on a wide range of behaviors, including those that affect your health and well-being.

How can you improve your self-efficacy?

According to Albert Bandura, creating experiences where you can gain skill and mastery play an important role in building self-efficacy. During the learning stages, observing other people perform the skill can also help you gain both knowledge and confidence.

How does self-efficacy impact motivation?

Motivation involves the desire to achieve a goal, which can be either extrinsic or intrinsic. There are a number of factors that can influence how people experience motivation, including self-efficacy. The social-cognitive theory of learning suggests that self-efficacy is a primary driver behind motivation. People who don’t believe in their ability to succeed may be less likely to initiate goal-directed behaviors or give up more quickly in the face of challenges.


Sources:

American Psychological Association. Teaching tip sheet: self-efficacy. Published 2009.

Bandura A. Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review. 1977;84:191-215.

Bandura A.  Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 1997.

Conner M, Norman P, Eds. Predicting health behaviour. Buckingham, England: Open University Press; 2005.

Cook DA, Artino AR Jr. Motivation to learn: an overview of contemporary theoriesMed Educ. 2016;50(10):997-1014. doi:10.1111/medu.13074

Romppel M, Herrmann-Lingen C, Wachter R, Edelmann F, Düngen HD, Pieske B, Grande G. A short form of the General Self-Efficacy Scale (GSE-6): Development, psychometric properties and validity in an intercultural non-clinical sample and a sample of patients at risk for heart failure. Psychosoc Med. 2013;10:Doc01. doi: 10.3205/psm000091