Among all the thoughts that affect human functioning, and standing at the core of psychologist Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory, are self-efficacy beliefs, the judgments that individuals make about their capability to accomplish tasks and succeed in activities. Self-efficacy beliefs touch virtually every aspect of people’s lives— whether they think productively or self-debilitatingly; how well they motivate themselves and persevere in the face of adversities; their vulnerability to stress and depression; and the life choices they make. People with a strong sense of efficacy approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. They have greater intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities, and they set themselves challenging goals and maintain strong commitment to them. High self-efficacy also helps create feelings of serenity in approaching difficult tasks and activities. As a consequence, self-efficacy beliefs powerfully influence the level of accomplishment that one ultimately achieves.
Self-efficacy should not be confused with self-esteem, which is a broad evaluation of one’s self, complete with the judgments of self-worth that accompany such evaluations. When individuals tap into these two self-beliefs, they ask themselves quite different types of questions. Self-efficacy beliefs revolve around questions of can (Can I drive a car? Can I solve this problem?), whereas self-esteem beliefs reflect questions of feel (Do I like myself? How do I feel about myself as a father?). Moreover, one’s beliefs about what one can do may bear little relation to how one feels about oneself. Many bright students are able to engage their academic tasks with strong self-efficacy even while their academic skills are a source of low self-esteem, having been labeled by their classmates as nerds or eggheads.
Individuals form their self-efficacy beliefs by interpreting information primarily from four sources, the most influential of which is their past mastery experience. Successes typically raise self-efficacy; failures lower it. People also form their self-efficacy beliefs through the vicarious experience of observing the actions of models. Observing models contributes to the belief in one’s own capabilities: “If they can do it, so can I.” Individuals also create and develop their efficacy beliefs as a result of the social persuasions they receive from significant others. Finally, somatic and emotional states such as anxiety, stress, arousal, and mood provide information about efficacy beliefs. When people experience negative thoughts and fears about their capabilities, those affective reactions can lower self-efficacy perceptions and trigger additional stress and agitation that help ensure the inadequate performance they fear.
Because individuals operate collectively as well as individually, self-efficacy is both a personal and a social construct. Collective systems develop a sense of collective efficacy—a group’s shared belief in its capability to attain goals and accomplish desired tasks. For example, schools develop collective beliefs about the capability of their students to learn, of their teachers to teach and otherwise enhance the lives of their students, and of their administrators and policymakers to create environments conducive to these tasks. Organizations with a strong sense of collective efficacy exercise empowering and vitalizing influences on their constituents.
SEE ALSO Self-Discrepancy Theory; Self-Esteem; Self-Monitoring
Bandura, Albert. 1977. Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change. Psychological Review 84 (2): 191–215.
Bandura, Albert. 1982. Self-efficacy Mechanism in Human Agency. American Psychologist 37 (2): 122–147.
Bandura, Albert. 1997. Self-efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman.
Pajares, Frank, and Tim Urdan, eds. 2006. Self-efficacy Beliefs and Adolescence. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.