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Political Efficacy

Political Efficacy


The concept of political efficacy is used by students of political behavior to identify a citizen’s feelings about the effects of his action on political events. It refers to the person’s belief that political and social change can be effected or retarded and that his efforts, alone or in concert with others, can produce desired behavior on the part of political authorities. Efficacy has its origins in social psychology and is closely related to “ego strength,” “subjective competence,” “self-confidence,” and “personal effectiveness.” The concept has particular relevance for assessing behavior in democratic systems, where a premium is placed on citizen participation and where there are accessible channels for expressing political needs.

The efficacious person views his political self with respect. He feels powerful, competent, and important. He holds a corollary set of expectations with respect to political officials; they are concerned about his vote and heed his demands. These self-evaluations and orientations toward political authorities are related to a generalized set of attitudes about the political system—for example, that elections matter or that leadership circles can be influenced and even penetrated.

Efficacy is not the same as a sense of civic obligation. The latter can motivate political activity whether or not the citizen feels that his action matters. Involvement, interest, and concern also tap dimensions different from efficacy. They are likely to be specialized or temporary, whereas efficacy involves a generalized orientation, toward the self and toward political objects, which remains more or less stable over time.

Efficacy refers to the individual’s perceptions of his effectiveness, not his actual influence. It is possible for a citizen to make a mistake in evaluating his political importance by either underestimating or overestimating the extent to which officials are sensitive to his demands. However, while evaluations of influence may not mirror reality, they are probably not unrelated to objective political conditions. It is quite likely that feelings of efficaciousness are nurtured and reinforced in a context in which one witnesses the translation of one’s wishes into realities. This, in large part, explains why the concept has been used in studying democratic systems. The citizen’s feelings of efficacy are conditioned by the availability of institutionalized channels for expressing demands, as well as by the creed requiring leaders to be responsible and responsive to nonleaders.

Studies focusing on efficacy at the citizen level raised three questions: (1) What are the antecedent conditions accounting for distributions of efficacy? (2) What do efficacy data explain about other political attitudes and behavior? (3) What are the consequences of efficacy distributions for the functioning of the general political system?

Antecedents of efficacy. In studies of American voting behavior, the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan has contributed the most systematic evidence tracing the antecedents of efficacy (Campbell et al. 1954; Michigan, University of 1960). A person who feels he can cope with the complexities of politics and believes that his participation carries weight in the political process is generally better educated, has a higher socioeconomic standing, and is more likely to be a member of a majority ethnic and religious group than the less efficacious citizen. These antecedent social conditions are to be expected; dominance in one aspect of social life produces a sense of control and effectiveness, which can be generalized to the political sphere.

Cross-cultural measurings of efficacy have produced support for the findings generated by American data. In five democratic nations, educational attainment, highly correlated with socioeconomic status, substantially predicted efficacy rates. Different levels of political confidence are more dependent on educational differences than on cultural variations between societies. In addition to providing the citizen with the necessary skills and tools for exercising political prerogatives, education evidently contributes to a general sense of security conducive to interacting with forces beyond the comfortable sphere of the familiar. In fact, there is support for the proposition that advanced education is the single most important factor contributing to high efficacy (assuming an institutional structure that permits citizen participation). The citizen whose family and school experiences have encouraged expression of preferences is likely to feel efficacious in his adult political life. Irrespective of autocratic or democratic socialization experiences, the well-educated person feels more politically competent than the less-educated individual (Almond & Verba 1963, pp. 204—209).

Psychological antecedents to political efficacy have been less clearly established. Current theorizing suggests that the capacity to assert oneself in politics is related to ego strength—the ability to adjust to external events and to control disruptive impulses (Lane 1959, p. 147). It is further argued that psychological structures which are compatible with high evaluations of the self and are conducive to feelings of effectiveness in the political world are suitable to activity in democratic systems. On the other hand, power-driven or authoritarian individuals are not expected to find satisfactions in political systems that place a premium on bargaining and compromise (Lasswell 1954).

In the identification of antecedent conditions of efficacy little attention has been given to structural or institutional factors. In part this is due to the lack of comparable data from different institutional settings. Persons do tend to feel more efficacious with respect to personnel and policies of their local government than to those of their national government (Almond & Verba 1963). Since local government is more immediate, accessible, and familiar to the citizen, it might be inferred that institutional availability plays some part in retarding or promoting efficaciousness.

Explanatory uses. The use of efficacy information as an independent variable for analyzing political behavior has been particularly fruitful in explaining rates of political participation and in assessing the intensity of involvement in electoral politics. Measures of political efficacy predict not only voter turnout (the stronger the feeling of efficacy, the more likely the person is to vote) but also more demanding forms of activity in democratic politics—letter writing, discussing issues, contributing money, and running for office. It is of course true that participation and efficacy are mutually supportive. The more one participates, the more likely one is to feel confident and vice versa. Efforts to isolate either efficacy or participation as the crucial antecedent variable would produce an inadequate theory of political involvement.

Although well-educated persons tend to score higher on efficacy measures than do the lesseducated, there is a residue among the college-educated who take a cynical stand toward the effectiveness of their vote. Nevertheless, they vote. This suggests that education leads to political participation even when the feeling of efficacy normally associated with educational status is absent.

Voters may be classified on a scale of “political relatedness” (Eulau & Schneider 1956), a concept combining efficacy with citizen duty. By examining the intensity as well as the rate of political activity, this measure helps to explain several dimensions of involvement in electoral politics. For example, citizens more “highly related” to the political process (i.e., those who score high on the scale of political relatedness) are more sensitive to differences between the parties, more issue oriented, and more concerned about the election outcome, have stronger partisan identifications, have greater interest in, and knowledge about, candidates and campaigns, and expose themselves to the media more often than persons less related.

Consequences for the political system. In assessing the quality of citizen involvement in the political culture, observers stress that the more an individual considers himself capable of influencing political decisions, the higher is his satisfaction with the general political system and the more likely he is to evaluate positively the performance of the authorities. This close relationship between efficacy and general feelings of satisfaction has important implications for problems of consensus and support in democratic nations. There is evidence that a sizable gap exists between citizens’ perceptions of their capacity to influence decisions and their actual exercise of prerogatives (Almond & Verba 1963, pp. 473–505). This gap may be healthy for democratic systems. While the democratic creed prescribes that leaders be responsive to nonleaders, the practical needs of government require that officials be relatively free of hampering restrictions when initiating and carrying out decisions. Stability is viewed as a workable balance between governmental responsiveness and governmental power. One important factor contributing to this balance is an appropriate set of political attitudes held by the citizenry. A wide distribution of efficaciousness implies that citizens feel they have a reserve of influence, whether they exert any influence or not. The citizen is satisfied and supports governmental authorities. Within broad limits the reserve of potential influence operates to check the leadership. However, since political activity is low on the scale of salient activities for a large proportion of the population, the leadership remains unhampered by constant citizen attentiveness. The gap between felt influence and used influence contributes to a political culture consistent with both democratic norms and the realities of governing.

The distribution of efficacy may also affect the quality of an election as a process of consent (Janowitz & Marvick 1956). A person lacking political self-confidence is less likely than others to conform to the politics of his socioeconomic group. There is also some evidence that the authoritarian syndrome is related to low efficacy. Quite possibly, an individual’s sense of impotence or confusion about his political role predisposes him to seek less rational and more absolutistic answers to political problems. Moreover, the citizen lacking political confidence is more subject to manipulation than the efficacious voter. The inference is that political participation unaccompanied by political confidence may turn a democratic election into a process of manipulation instead of a process of consent. Efforts to relate findings about the correlates of efficacy to evaluations of the election function in democracies are just beginning, but it is already clear that such attempts are important steps in closing the theoretical gap between data on individual attitudes and explanations of the political system.

Specialized uses of political efficacy. The concept of efficacy has proven useful in examining certain orientations of political officials. For purposes of analyzing legislative behavior the concept is redefined to mean a legislator’s sense of effectiveness in his political roles (Wahlke et al. 1962). The focus is less on the feeling of self-confidence, its antecedents, and implications than on the question of whether the legislator feels he has the abilities, skills, and knowledge to meet the demands of his office. The legislator confident of his political skills is more innovative and more often mediates between conflicting interests in the political arena than his less efficacious colleague.

Efforts to trace the antecedents of legislative efficacy suggest that membership in the majority party produces a greater sense of confidence toward one’s political role. Information about careers of elected officials indicates that greater efficacy characterizes the incumbent who has been nurtured in politics since youth, who was self-recruited into active political life, and who has political ambitions.

Though studies to date have closed certain empirical gaps in knowledge of antecedent conditions of efficacy, major theoretical problems remain unsolved. The concentration on democratic systems has hampered an understanding of how structures and ideologies affect efficacy patterns. Little attention has been given to the relationship between feelings of competence and the actual availability of channels for expressing political feelings. Until comparisons between different institutional–ideological contexts are made, any explanations of efficacy distributions will remain parochial. Other unanswered theoretical questions concern the consequences of efficacy patterns for the political system. For example, in what manner do particular distributions of efficacy restrain political leadership, affect policy outputs, or cause change in institutional structures? Important theoretical potentials of the efficacy concept remain unexploited. It may well be that the understanding of such phenomena as stability and change in political systems will turn in part on careful attention to the degree of confidence a population feels about its political worth.

Kenneth Prewitt


Almond, Gabriel A.; and Verba, Sidney 1963 The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton Univ. Press.

Campbell, Angus; Gurin, Gerald; and Miller, Warren E. 1954 The Voter Decides. Evanston, III.: Row, Peterson.

Eulau, Heinz; and Schneider, Peter 1956 Dimensions of Political Involvement. Public Opinion Quarterly 20:128–142.

Janowitz, Morris; and Marvick, Dwaine 1956 Com-petitive Pressure and Democratic Consent: An Interpretationof the 1952 Presidential Election. Michigan Governmental Studies, No. 32. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Lane, Robert E. 1959 Political Life: Why People Get Involved in Politics. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Lasswell, Harold D. 1954 The Selective Effect of Personality on Political Participation. Pages 197–225 in Richard Christie and Marie Jahoda (editors), Studies in the Scope and Method of The Authoritarian Personality. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Michigan, University of, Survey Research Center 1960 The American Voter. By Angus Campbell et al. New York: Wiley.

Wahlke, John et al. 1962 The Legislative System: Ex plorations in Legislative Behavior. New York: Wiley.

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