First developed in 1977, self-efficacy is an important component of Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory. Self-efficacy refers to people’s judgments of their ability to perform necessary behaviors to produce desired outcomes in specific situations. These judgments are highly context specific and tend to influence which activities people will attempt, how much effort they will put into the activities, how long they will persist at them, and their emotional responses while involved in the activities. For example, adolescents who feel more efficacious about their writing abilities than their math skills will be more likely to (a) take writing classes and avoid math classes, (b) exert more effort in their writing classes than math classes, (c) experience more anxiety in math than writing classes, and (d) persist longer in writing than math classes when they encounter difficulties.
Dimensions of Self-Efficacy
Self-efficacy beliefs vary on three dimensions: magnitude, strength, and generality, although the strength dimension is employed most widely in self-efficacy measures. Nonetheless, all three dimensions have potentially important implications for performance. The magnitude dimension encompasses the number of steps, or level of task difficulty, people consider themselves capable of performing. Some people limit themselves to attempting only simple tasks while others attempt the most difficult and complex tasks. For example, a person trying to lose weight may feel efficacious to abstain from eating sweets when there are no sweets present. However, that person may feel less efficacious to pass up the dessert cart at a restaurant.
Efficacy beliefs also vary in strength. People with weak efficacy beliefs are easily discouraged by obstacles and setbacks, while people with strong efficacy beliefs persevere despite disconfirming experiences. For example, two people wanting to abstain from sweets may feel they can pass up the dessert cart at a restaurant, but one may hold this belief with more certainty.
Finally, efficacy beliefs vary in generality. Self-efficacy beliefs in one behavioral or situational domain may generalize to other behaviors or situations depending on the extent to which those behaviors and situations require similar skills. For example, the person able to pass up the dessert cart may also feel efficacious in passing by a bakery without walking in.
Sources of Self-Efficacy
A strong sense of efficacy can be developed in four ways: mastery experiences, vicarious learning experiences, social persuasion, and physical and emotional states.
Mastery experiences are personal experiences that give people a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of mastery. By managing challenges through successive achievable steps, people develop a sense of mastery. Mastery experiences are the most effective way to develop a strong sense of efficacy because they offer the most authentic evidence that one can do what it takes to succeed. Success experiences help build self-efficacy, while failures undermine it. For example, using the weight loss example, a person who has lost weight in the past is more likely to have higher self-efficacy in this area than someone who has not been able to lose weight previously. Success experiences need to be at least somewhat challenging in order to develop a strong sense of efficacy. Easy successes can lead to expectations of quick results, which may lead people to become easily discouraged when faced with obstacles or setbacks. Overcoming obstacles through perseverance teaches people that success often requires sustained effort, which, in turn, creates resilient self-efficacy beliefs. Once people develop a strong sense of efficacy, they persevere when facing difficult tasks, work harder to overcome obstacles, and rebound quickly from setbacks. The negative impact of occasional failures is diminished.
The effects of failure on efficacy beliefs depend in part on when they occur. If failures occur before a resilient sense of efficacy is established, they will undermine self-efficacy. The person will be less likely to do what it takes to overcome obstacles and rebound from setbacks. However, if a resilient sense of efficacy has already been established, the person will work hard to overcome obstacles and rebound easily from setbacks, thus increasing self-efficacy even more.
Mastery experiences are not the sole source for developing a strong sense of efficacy. Vicarious experiences through social modeling are another way to develop self-efficacy. If people see others similar to themselves succeed through persistent effort, they may come to believe they, too, can succeed in similar activities. The impact vicarious experiences have on self-efficacy depends on how similar to the model people perceive themselves to be. The greater the perceived similarity, the more impact the model’s successes and failures will have on a person’s self-efficacy beliefs. People seek models proficient in the skills and abilities they wish to acquire. Competent social models may help increase efficacy by teaching skills and strategies for managing the demands of the environment. For example, let’s say that the person who wants to lose weight has a friend who has lost weight. If that friend has a similar build, eating habits, or lifestyle, the person may feel more efficacious in his or her own ability to lose weight.
Social models also provide a gauge by which people judge themselves. Many times adequacy in specific areas is gauged in relation to the performance of similar others. This is called social comparison and is a primary factor in the self-appraisal of abilities. For example, an art student who compares himself to other art students rather than to Picasso or his 3-year-old nephew will more likely develop an accurate sense of efficacy on artistic tasks. Comparing one’s artistic talents to Picasso will undermine efficacy beliefs, while using one’s 3-year-old nephew as a model will lead to unrealistically high self-efficacy beliefs. Such social comparison information can have far-ranging consequences on the types of activities people choose to pursue and on their feelings of efficacy regarding those pursuits.
The third source for developing a strong sense of efficacy is social persuasion. People can lead others, through suggestion, into believing they have the ability to do what is necessary to accomplish a certain outcome. While social persuasion is not as effective as mastery or vicarious experiences, often people can be verbally persuaded that they possess the ability to master certain activities. People who are persuaded in this manner are more likely to sustain effort and try harder when faced with obstacles. People who want to effectively persuade others should arrange situations and events in ways that promote success and avoid placing people prematurely in situations where they might fail. The strength of social persuasion depends on factors such as the perceived expertness, trustworthiness, and attractiveness of the persuasive source.
Physical and Emotional States
The final source for developing a strong sense of efficacy is to reduce stress and depression while increasing physical stamina. People use their physical and emotional states to judge their capabilities. An elevated mood can enhance self-efficacy, while a negative mood may diminish it. People tend to associate stress, tension, and other unpleasant physiological signs with poor performance and perceived incompetence. In activities requiring strength and stamina, feelings of fatigue and pain cause self-efficacy beliefs to decrease. How an emotion is perceived and interpreted is more important than the level of intensity. People with a strong sense of efficacy are more likely to view their state of emotional arousal as energizing, while people with a weak sense of efficacy will view their state of emotional arousal as debilitating.
Self-efficacy beliefs regulate human functioning through four major types of processes: cognitive, motivational, affective, and selective.
A key purpose of thought is to enable people to visualize possible outcomes of different courses of action. It allows people to exercise control over activities that are important to them. Most courses of action are first preceded by thoughts. These thoughts become guides for action when developing skills. Self-efficacy beliefs influence thoughts in ways that can either bolster or impair performance. People’s self-efficacy beliefs influence how they visualize future events and approach potential situations. Self-efficacy and visualization are bidirectional. High self-efficacy beliefs foster positive visualizations and positive visualizations strengthen self-efficacy beliefs. People with high self-efficacy beliefs in a specific domain display greater cognitive resourcefulness, more flexibility, and an ability to manage their environment in that domain. They set higher goals for themselves and have a stronger commitment to those goals. People with high self-efficacy visualize themselves navigating those situations successfully. These positive visualizations enhance subsequent performance. People with low self-efficacy in a specific domain are more likely to visualize failure scenarios in that domain. They tend to dwell on personal deficiencies and what is likely to go wrong. This undermines motivation.
According to Bandura, there are three different forms of cognitive motivators, each with a corresponding theory. The motivators are causal attributions, outcome expectancies, and cognized goals. The corresponding theories are attribution theory, expectancy-value theory, and goal theory. In attribution theory, causal attributions of performance affect motivation. Attributions are the explanations people give for behaviors or events. Efficacy beliefs influence these causal attributions. People with low self-efficacy attribute their failures or setbacks to low ability, while people with high self-efficacy attribute failures or setbacks to too little effort or ineffective strategies. People with high self-efficacy believe that success is a matter of more effort or better strategies.
In expectancy-value theory, people are motivated by the outcomes they expect to achieve through specific courses of action. The strength of the motivation is based on two factors: the expectation that a specific action will produce a specific outcome and the attractiveness of that outcome. The more people expect that their behavior will secure a specific outcome and the more highly valued the outcome, the greater their motivation will be to perform the activity.
Goal theory suggests that explicit, challenging goals based on personal standards enhance motivation. Motivation based on these personal standards involves comparisons between people’s adopted personal standards and their perceived performance. In order to evaluate how they are doing, people set personal standards and judge how well they are performing against those standards. Self-efficacy beliefs play a key role in this form of motivation. Often, people choose goals based on their self-efficacy beliefs. How efficacious people feel will influence what challenges they choose to undertake, how much effort they will expend, and how long they will persevere in the pursuit of their goals.
Self-efficacy is an important component to the self-regulation of emotional states. Efficacy beliefs affect the nature and intensity of emotional experience through a person’s ability to control thought, action, and affect. Efficacy beliefs influence where people place their attention and whether situations will be construed as benign or distressing. People’s belief in their ability to cope affects how much stress, anxiety, or depression they will feel. People with high coping efficacy behave in ways that make difficult situations more manageable. According to Bandura, often the distress people feel results from failures to control upsetting thoughts. People with strong coping efficacy are more able to control such thoughts.
By selecting their environments, people have a choice in what they become. Choices are influenced by self-efficacy beliefs. Self-efficacy beliefs influence the types of activities and environments people choose to become involved in, as well as the environments they actually produce. People shape their lives by choosing environments that encourage certain capabilities and lifestyles and avoid activities and environments they believe to exceed their capabilities.
Self-Efficacy and Mental Health
Three major types of self-efficacy have been identified: task-specific self-efficacy, self-regulatory efficacy, and coping efficacy. Task-specific self-efficacy refers to people’s beliefs in their ability to perform the specific tasks required to succeed within a given domain.
Self-regulatory efficacy is defined as people’s perceived ability to guide and motivate themselves to perform self-enhancing behaviors. Coping efficacy refers to people’s beliefs in their ability to deal with particular obstacles. Research shows that coping efficacy is significantly related to mental health.
Coping Efficacy, Stress, and Anxiety
Individuals encounter stressors on a daily basis. These daily stressors have been found to be important indicators of psychological distress. People’s beliefs in their ability to regulate their functioning, exercise control over their environment, and manage the stressors in their lives affect their psychological well-being. Strong coping efficacy has been shown to reduce stress reactions. People are less likely to feel stress when they believe they can handle the task or situation. Researchers have found that when people have low coping efficacy, their distress significantly increases when faced with stressors. However, if people’s perceived coping efficacy is strengthened, they will display less stress and physiological arousal when faced with the same stressors. Perceived self-efficacy is also related to people’s approach to coping with stressful situations. People with high coping efficacy are motivated to change the harsh environment and stressful situation. Through increasing or maintaining their coping efforts, they alter stressful situations into more benign ones, thus alleviating their stress.
Anxiety is a psychological problem that is often a result of stress. Anxiety is aroused when people feel they are unable to cope, either cognitively or behaviorally, with potential threats. Bandura argued that low coping efficacy beliefs regarding difficult circumstances cause anxiety and avoidant behaviors. People who believe they can control their environment and cope with the potential threats are less likely to feel anxious. People with low coping efficacy tend to view potentially threatening events as unmanageable, perceive situations as fraught with dangers, and exaggerate the severity of potential threats. They become distressed and experience high levels of anxiety. People tend to avoid situations that cause them anxiety or potential anxiety.
Self-Efficacy, Coping Efficacy, and Depression
Perceived self-efficacy plays an important role in depression. Three types of self-efficacy beliefs influence depression. First, people may feel unable to perform at a level that would bring them personal satisfaction. Second, people may feel incapable of developing meaningful relationships with others. Third, people may feel unable to control depressive thoughts. According to Bandura, there is a relationship among self-efficacy expectations, outcome expectations, outcome value, and depression. If people believe that a highly valued outcome is obtainable through specific behaviors, but believe they are not capable of performing those behaviors, depression and self-devaluation may occur.
Bandura and his colleagues have found that perceived academic self-efficacy and social self-efficacy, which address two important aspects of adolescents’ lives, affect adolescents’ depression both directly and indirectly. Perceived academic and social self-efficacy affect depression directly via their influences on adolescents’ mood and emotional states. Perceived academic self-efficacy has an indirect effect on depression via its impact on adolescents’ engagement in behaviors that lead to academic achievement. A strong sense of academic efficacy also affects depression by decreasing adolescents’ academic stressors and promoting motivation and confidence in their abilities. High social self-efficacy reduces adolescents’ vulnerability to depression by promoting supportive relationships with peers. Furthermore, perceived academic self-efficacy and social efficacy can be buffers to prevent adolescents from risky activities, such as delinquency and substance abuse, by reducing their risk of depression, promoting academic achievement, and developing peer support. It is also important to note that the relationship between self-efficacy and depression is not limited to adolescents or young adults. Among senior citizens, self-efficacy has been found to significantly predict depression, beyond what could be predicted by demographics, income, or health.
Coping Efficacy and Life Transitions
Perceived coping efficacy serves as a regulatory function in the transitions of life. It is especially important during the transition process from adolescence to adulthood, which can be full of stress, challenge, and risk. Adolescents with high coping efficacy tend to cope with the transition well. They pursue activities that build competencies and resist peer pressure to engage in risky behaviors.
Coping efficacy can also promote mental health later in life. Seniors with high coping efficacy beliefs are more likely to adapt readily to the challenges of aging. They engage themselves and their environment to facilitate the transition process by improving and maintaining physical health, improving social skills, and enhancing cognitive functioning.
Coping Efficacy and Trauma
Each year millions of people experience traumatic life events such as natural disasters, sexual or physical assaults, or the death of a loved one. Even long after the trauma, people may show signs of stress by experiencing recurrent nightmares, flashbacks of the event, and sleep disturbances. Research has shown that people’s beliefs in their ability to exercise some control over their personal functioning and environment after the event have an impact on their posttraumatic recovery. Traumatic events alone are not enough to cause stress or disorder. People’s appraisal of the event substantially contributes to the emotional well-being following it. People with high self-efficacy in their ability to control their environment and recover from traumatic events tend to experience less distress and make efforts to effect changes in their lives.
Self-Efficacy and Perceived Competence Implications
It has been shown that high coping efficacy can reduce people’s vulnerability to stress and depression, enhance their resiliency to adversity, and improve their mental health. Thus, increasing coping efficacy can be a focus of intervention for counselors. The first task for counselors is to assess their clients’ perceived coping efficacy through questions about the clients’ beliefs in their competence in behaviors related to coping with stressful events. When counselors find that clients unrealistically underestimate their capabilities, counselors may focus on the causes of these perceptions by exploring clients’ culture, family background, and previous experiences. Thus, in the assessment stage, counselors try to help clients identify areas of vulnerability and explore areas of behavior where they feel an inability to cope with stress.
In addition to informal assessments or discussions with clients, counselors can use developed instruments to assess clients’ self-efficacy. Since self-efficacy is not a global trait, but an individual’s belief related to distinct behavioral domains, there is no single measure of self-efficacy that can be used across different contexts. Self-efficacy measures have been developed for various domains. Self-efficacy instruments in the career domain have been developed to assess clients’ efficacy about their decision-making abilities (e.g., career decision making self-efficacy) and activities involved in specific career fields (e.g., mathematics self-efficacy) as well as career fields themselves (e.g., engineering self-efficacy). In addition, self-efficacy scales have been developed to assess social efficacy, coping efficacy, and a variety of other domain-specific tasks (e.g., computer, weight loss, and smoking cessation self-efficacy beliefs).
Once the counselor and client decide on a domain of behavior in which to strengthen self-efficacy, it can be beneficial to the client’s psychological adjustment and well-being to move to an intervention stage. In this stage, counselors help clients build higher levels of self-efficacy. It is helpful to use the four sources of self-efficacy—mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, social persuasion, and physical and emotional states—as a framework for this stage.
Counselors can help clients recall and process previous successful experiences as a way of motivating clients to face future challenges. In addition to helping clients explore their previous successful experiences, counselors can also focus on facilitating future achievement. Counselors can help clients make plans and strategies to achieve their goals. They can help clients break down difficult tasks, behaviors, or goals into smaller, more easily manageable steps. They can provide relevant resources, if necessary, to help clients gain success experiences.
Counselors can help clients increase their self-efficacy by the use of vicarious experience. Counselors can help clients find social models in their environment by helping them identify people who have succeeded in the behavioral domains where the client lacks self-efficacy. The more similar to the model the client feels in terms of gender, ethnic group, and background, the more influence the model will likely have on the client. Models can be family members, friends, or even people from the media.
The third source of efficacy is social persuasion. Counselors can strengthen clients’ self-efficacy by expressing their belief in the clients’ capabilities, encouraging them, and reinforcing their efforts. In addition to the encouragement and support that is vital to clients’ progress, counselors can also help clients set realistic goals, discuss possible barriers to achieve the goals, help clients find ways to cope with and overcome these barriers, and attribute success experiences to growing competency rather than to such other factors as good luck and tasks that are too easy. It should be noted that the role of the counselor is not just to convey positive appraisals, but rather to realistically boost clients’ self-efficacy, and to help clients improve their coping skills.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, people tend to depend on their physical and emotional states to judge their capabilities. They may interpret their emotional arousal as a sign of poor performance. Therefore, counselors can help clients increase self-efficacy by teaching them techniques to reduce stress and emotional arousal. Some of these techniques include anxiety management, relaxation training, and teaching clients more adaptive self-talk. Counselors can help clients become aware of their negative self-talk, and teach them ways to stop their self-defeating thinking patterns and replace the patterns with task-focused cognition.
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