Social cognitive theory (SCT), promulgated by psychologist Albert Bandura, has been used widely to explain health behaviors across different populations. Lifestyle physical activity (PA), resistance training (RT), and sport performance are examples of these types of behavior. Interventions to improve sport performance or increase PA participation have been developed using the SCT framework and shown to be successful at changing these behaviors. This entry describes the constructs that are central to the theory; discusses how they work to predict, explain, and change PA and sport behavior; and reviews key literature surrounding this theory.
SCT emerged in the 1980s during a period when social learning theories had been gaining wide recognition. Bandura differentiated this theory by emphasizing the importance of human agency—the notion that a person can influence his or her actions, with one’s thoughts and cognitions playing a central role in determining one’s behavior. Human beings are seen as capable of self-reflection, forethought, and self-regulation. Accordingly, human function is the result of an interaction between behavior, personal factors (including cognitions), and the environment. This interaction is also known as triadic reciprocation and was important in distinguishing SCT from other social learning theories of the same period. Each component in this triadic determination can influence the other two. Thus, a change in behavior may result in a change in cognition in the same way as a change in cognition can impact behavior.
Main Constructs of Social Cognitive Theory
Bandura laid out specific theoretical constructs that would determine, predict, and explain behavior. He also gave details on how these constructs work together and how they can be influenced, changed, or enhanced to change behavior. The main personal construct of SCT is self-efficacy and is defined as the belief in one’s ability to complete a specific task. Barriers to self-efficacy refers to the confidence a person has to overcome obstacles associated with a certain behavior. This type of efficacy is often used in PA promotion and explanation. Typical barriers include the environmental (e.g., weather, venue, travel), personal (e.g., schedule, feeling self-conscious), and social (e.g., no exercise partner, not receiving encouragement). Self-efficacy is hypothesized to influence how individuals act, what activities they choose to participate in, the amount of energy they put into behavioral attempts, how they combat obstacles, and the level of achievement they attain. Because of these functions, self-efficacy has been put forth as the most central and influential construct in Bandura’s SCT theory. In fact, Bandura’s SCT is sometimes referred to as self-efficacy theory. Self-efficacy also is theorized to influence every other construct, making it a key construct in behavior explanation and prediction.
Primary sources of efficacy information include mastery experience, vicarious observation, social persuasion, and interpretation of affective and physiological stimuli. Successful past performance of the behavior would be classified as mastery experience. People with prior success with the task would have higher levels of self-efficacy than those with prior failure or lack of experience. Another way to change self-efficacy is through vicarious experience. Watching another individual, thought to be similar to oneself, successfully complete the behavior would increase the observer’s own self-efficacy. Social input, or persuasion, can also alter self-efficacy. If people receive positive feedback from an important other, their self-efficacy should increase. The final source of self-efficacy is the evaluation of affective and physiological states. If the state is perceived as a normal or positive response to the behavior then it will translate into stable or increased self-efficacy. If that symptom is perceived as negative or abnormal, however, self-efficacy may decrease. The effectiveness of these strategies in exercise interventions has been investigated and vicarious experience, feedback on past or other’s performance, action planning, instruction, and reinforcement of effort all bring about positive effects on self-efficacy. However, relapse prevention strategies, graded mastery, and persuasion have all been found to be ineffective for enhancing self-efficacy in exercise interventions.
Self-efficacy is often compared with perceived behavioral control, an element of the theory of planned behavior (TPB). Although similar in nature, they are two distinct constructs. Self-efficacy is focused on individuals’ confidence in their ability, whereas perceived behavioral control is concerned with the amount of control people feel that they have regarding their participation in a certain behavior. Many times, perceived behavioral control is measured using some efficacy items, but these constructs are, in fact, different.
Another SCT construct posited to influence behavior directly and indirectly is the outcome expectation—beliefs about the consequences of an action or behavioral outcome. Positive outcome expectations are seen as motives for behavioral engagement, whereas negative outcome expectations are usually detrimental to performance of the behavior in question. For example, someone who believes that PA will result in pain (or exacerbation of current pain) may be less likely to engage in regular exercise than an individual who believes PA will decrease painful symptoms. Age may moderate the effect of positive outcome expectations on PA behavior, with the effect being stronger for older adults than for young adults. Outcome value or proximity also may play a role in this interaction. Typically, positive outcome expectations are measured with outcomes such as chronic illness prevention, which may not have great perceived value for younger adults. These types of outcomes are seen as less relevant (or distal) to their life stage. Thus, the predictive ability of positive outcome expectations, as typically measured, may be less for young as opposed to older adults.
Outcome expectations can be positive or negative but also fall into three categories: physical, social, and self-evaluative. Physical outcome expectations are the positive and negative feelings that are associated with the behavior. This category also includes any tangible gains or losses. Social outcome expectations refer to the impact on the person’s acceptance by important others. Self-evaluative outcome expectations are the positive and negative assessments made relative to one’s participation in the behavior. If participation is viewed as improving one’s rating of oneself or that it will heighten their self-perceptions, they are more likely to engage in that behavior.
Another integral construct in the social cognitive framework is self-regulation, which involves the use of self-directing strategies to help change or maintain behaviors. Various components of self-regulation, including goal setting and self monitoring, have been found to be related to health behaviors.
There are three main components of self regulatory systems. Self-observation involves monitoring one’s behavior and performance. This component includes a self-diagnostic function and a self-motivating function. People can diagnose themselves in terms of the behavioral patterns that they observe over time. They can determine what conditions within their environment are present when they behave in a certain way. This information can be meaningful when attempting to learn a skill or change a behavior. The self-motivating function comes into play when a person sets goals based on his or her previous performance or behavior. The judgment process is the second component of self-regulation and involves developing personal standards or goals for performance and behavior. Performance can be compared against a person’s previous behavior, a certain group of important others, or in a collective. The collective comparison is an evaluation of a group’s performance, rather than an individual’s, and is particularly important in the sport domain. The third component of self-regulation is self-response. Based on the observed performance and its evaluation, a person will react favorably or unfavorably. The type of reaction will depend on several factors, including the perceived importance of the task and the locus of control. If individuals feel that the task was personally important but they did not have personal control over their performance (e.g., the venue was inhospitable), then the reaction will be very different from if they had felt they had control over their performance. A person trying to elicit behavior change may develop incentives for positive performance of this behavior. For example, if a person met their PA goal for the month, they might treat themselves to a new workout outfit.
Also important in Bandura’s SCT are impediments and facilitators of behavior. Individuals may evaluate their own ability to overcome barriers to health behaviors, and if the barriers are perceived as too great, the individual may fail to engage in the behaviors. Alternatively, if one is surrounded by an environment that encourages health behaviors, this individual may see this activity as one that is easily adopted. Typical facilitators and impediments include the social and physical environment. Social support is an important facilitator. If an individual learning a new skill or changing a behavior has strong support from valuable others, the person will tend to be more successful. The physical environment, either actual or perceived, can also facilitate or impede behavior change. This includes the built environment (e.g., neighborhood structures, walking trails, essential sports equipment), as well as policies and rules that may be in place to help people be active or engage in sport, or keep them from participation. Changing the environment, either physical or social, can be difficult as these components are out of the individual’s control. However, change in the perceptions of these environmental components can help people change their behavior.
All of the aforementioned constructs work in concert with each other to explain current behavior as well as behavior change. Self-efficacy is fundamental to the process of behavior change in that confidence in one’s abilities can provide the motivation necessary to initiate a change in behavior. Additionally, self-efficacy is important because it influences several other SCT variables. Individuals who are more efficacious are more likely to believe that the behavior will bring about positive consequences. That is, they have positive outcome expectations regarding the behavior of interest. If individuals have higher self-efficacy, they believe that with personal effort they can overcome the barriers to certain behaviors. Those who have high self-efficacy also set their personal goals higher than those who have lower levels of self-efficacy and are more motivated to achieve these goals. Not only does self-efficacy directly influence behavior, but also it has an indirect influence on a behavior by way of other social cognitive variables. Both outcome expectations and impediments and facilitators also indirectly predict behavior through self-regulation. People with more positive outcome expectations who view their physical and social environment as supportive of their behavior will have better self-regulatory capacity, which should lead to positive behaviors. In summary, self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and self-regulation have direct effects on behavior. Impediments and facilitators are theorized to indirectly affect behavior through self-regulation.
Evidence of Behavior Prediction and Behavior Change
PA participation has been explained using SCT in several different populations. Evidence has linked self-efficacy with PA behavior in adolescents, emerging adults, older adults, and people with chronic conditions or disabilities. High levels of self-efficacy have also been shown to be related to better adherence to a PA intervention.
The effect of outcome expectation is often muted by the effect of self-efficacy on behavior, thus downplaying the importance of this construct. However, there has been evidence to show that self-efficacy, outcome expectations, social support, and self-regulatory behaviors all have independent predictive effects on PA behavior and play a role in behavior change.
Self-efficacy has been found to be the best predictor of change in behavior and maintenance of that change. People who participate in interventions and increase their self-efficacy for PA tend to also increase their levels of PA. Furthermore, if self-efficacy levels remain higher than at baseline, PA participation also remains higher than initial levels.
Evidence has shown that interventions that include action planning, or detailed planning processes regarding how, when, and where to perform activity, are more successful at increasing self-efficacy for PA as well as actual PA behavior than interventions that do not include action planning. The mechanism for this success is possibly through the successful use of goal setting and implementations. Further, successful completion of goals could increase a person’s sense of mastery—thereby increasing their self-efficacy. Another successful intervention strategy is instruction on the resources available to help participants to engage in PA. Receiving specific instruction on what is available can help people to plan their goal implementation in such a way that enables successful completion of goals. This success may then increase self-efficacy and PA behavior.
Self-efficacy has been shown to be the mediating construct between intervention programs and increased PA in a number of different populations. Post-intervention work has shown that people who have higher levels of self-efficacy after an intervention tend to report engaging in greater amounts of PA than those who have lower levels of self-efficacy.
Social Cognitive Theory in Sport
SCT is not only useful for understanding PA behavior, but it is also important when examining sport behavior. There are many similarities in the sources of self-efficacy between PA and sport. Mastery experience, achievement of goals, social support (verbal persuasion), physical and mental preparation (interpretation of physical and emotional states), and vicarious experiences are the same in both domains. Some sport-specific sources of self-efficacy include coaches’ leadership, environmental comfort, physical self-presentation, and situational favorableness. Another source of self-efficacy that has been primarily studied in sport is imagery. Athletes can use this technique to envision themselves performing successfully. The use of imagery has been shown to improve self-efficacy as people can see themselves successfully completing the task, beating an opponent, or simply feeling confident in their abilities. Moreover, imagery has been related to improved performance (an effect that may be mediated by changes in self-efficacy beliefs).
Efficacy beliefs help to determine people’s behavior in sporting contexts. Certainly, their efficacy level will influence which activity they choose to participate in and what kind of goals they will set. People with healthy levels of self-efficacy will set challenging, but realistic goals. However, it has been suggested that efficacy in the sporting domain may have an inverted-U effect. Those with low self-efficacy will not do well in the activities they participate in because they will not put forth the effort and time needed to be successful. Those with overly high levels of efficacy may set their goals too high and lack the skills to meet them. This ultimately sets the individual up for failure and discouragement that may keep them from developing their skills. Those with optimal levels of self-efficacy tend to strive to improve their skills and continue to work hard even when faced with adversity.
Performance in the sport setting (i.e., competition, practice) is related to self-efficacy. People with healthy levels of self-efficacy tend to perform at higher levels than those with either very low or very high levels of efficacy. Sport performances provide very tangible evidence of goal achievement. Successes and failures are very visible and can be compared with goals, thus creating a context of goal-directed behavior in which SCT constructs become very relevant to performance. For example, those with high efficacy beliefs, when faced with internal thoughts and emotions, are typically able to focus on the challenge of the event and their goals. Those with low efficacy beliefs will typically focus on their worries (e.g., about losing, getting hurt, stress and pressure). This loss of focus can be detrimental to performance in sport. In addition to impaired concentration, sport performance can suffer from low self-efficacy due to increased anxiety or reduced level of self-confidence or self-esteem. Individuals faced with a challenging task but doubting they possess the skills to meet the challenge will have low self-efficacy and likely experience anxiety or concentration problems, leading to poor performance.
Beyond the Individual: Collective Efficacy
There are several different types of efficacy in sporting contexts. One such belief that is very different from the PA domain is the construct of collective efficacy (CE). This is the group’s confidence in its ability to achieve a certain goal or perform a certain task. CE affects how much effort team members exert in team activities. It also plays a role in determining how long a member is willing to continue belonging to a group or team. CE has been related to team performance, even after controlling for past performance. Thus, building CE in a team may be a way to improve performance. CE can be enhanced using the same methods that are used to enhance individual efficacy, as long as they pertain to the team’s performance and goals.
- Ashford, S., Edmunds, J., & French, D. P. (2010). What is the best way to change self-efficacy to promote lifestyle and recreational physical activity? A systematic review with meta-analysis. British Journal of Health Psychology, 15, 265–288.
- Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of self-regulation . Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 248–287.
- Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.
- Bandura, A. (2004). Health promotion by social cognitive means. Health Education & Behavior, 31(2), 143–164.
- Feltz, D. L., Short, S. E., & Sullivan, P. J. (2008). Selfefficacy in sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Williams, D. M., Anderson, E. S., & Winett, R. A. (2005). A review of the outcome expectancy construct in physical activity research. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 29(1), 70–79.
- Williams, S. L., & French, D. P. (2011). What are the most effective intervention techniques for changing physical activity self-efficacy and physical activity behavior—and are they the same? Health Education Research, 26(2), 308–322.