Self-Efficacy Definition

Self-efficacy is defined as people’s beliefs in their capabilities to produce desired effects by their own actions. Self-efficacy theory maintains that self-efficacy beliefs are the most important determinants of the behaviors people choose to engage in and how much they persevere in their efforts in the face of obstacles and challenges. Self-efficacy theory also maintains that these self-efficacy beliefs play a crucial role in psychological adjustment, psychological problems, and physical health, as well as in professionally guided and self-guided behavioral change strategies.

Self-EfficacySince the publication of Albert Bandura’s 1977 Psychological Review article titled “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavior Change,” the term self-efficacy has become ubiquitous in psychology and related fields. Hundreds of articles on every imaginable aspect of self-efficacy have appeared in journals devoted to psychology, sociology, kinesiology, public health, medicine, nursing, and other fields. This article addresses three basic questions: What are self-efficacy beliefs? Where do they come from? Why are they important?

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History and Background of Self-Efficacy

Although the term self-efficacy is recent, interest in beliefs about personal control has a long history in philosophy and psychology. Benedict Spinoza, David Hume, John Locke, William James, and (more recently) Gilbert Ryle have all struggled with understanding the role of volition and the will in human behavior. In the 20th century, the theories of effectance motivation, achievement motivation, social learning, and learned helplessness are just a few of the many theories that sought to explore relationships between perceptions of personal competence and human behavior and psychological well-being. Bandura’s 1977 article, however, both formalized the notion of perceived competence as self-efficacy and offered a theory of how it develops and how it influences human behavior and defined it in a way that made scientific research on it possible. The essential idea was not new; what was new and important was the empirical rigor with which this idea could now be examined. Bandura also has placed self-efficacy theory in the context of his broader social cognitive theory.

What Are Self-Efficacy Beliefs?

One of the best ways to get a clear sense of how self-efficacy is defined and measured is to distinguish it from related concepts. Self-efficacy is not perceived skill; it is what one believes one can do with one’s skills under certain conditions. Self-efficacy beliefs are not simply predictions about behavior. Self-efficacy is concerned not with that one believes one will do but with what one believes one can do. Self-efficacy is not an intention to behave or an intention to attain a particular goal. An intention is what one says one will probably do, and research has shown that intentions are influenced by several factors, including, but not limited to, self-efficacy beliefs. A self-efficacy belief is not the same as a goal but is a belief about one’s ability to do what it takes to achieve one’s own goals. Self-efficacy is not self-esteem. Self-esteem is what one generally believes about oneself, and how one generally feels about what one believes about oneself. Self-efficacy beliefs are specific beliefs about exercising specific abilities in specific domains. Self-efficacy is not a motive, drive, or need for control. One can have a strong need for control in a particular domain but still hold weak beliefs about one’s self-efficacy for that domain. Self-efficacy beliefs are not outcome expectancies (or behavior-outcome expectancies). An outcome expectancy is one’s belief that a specific behavior may lead to a specific outcome in a specific situation. A self-efficacy belief, simply put, is one’s belief that one can perform the behavior that produces the outcome. Self-efficacy is not a personality trait but, rather, beliefs about one’s own ability to coordinate skills and abilities to attain desired goals in particular domains and circumstances. Self-efficacy beliefs can generalize from one situation to another, but specific self-efficacy beliefs are not caused by a personality trait called general self-efficacy.

Where Do Self-Efficacy Beliefs Come From?

Self-efficacy beliefs develop over time and through experience. The development of such beliefs begins in infancy and continues throughout life. The early development of self-efficacy is influenced primarily by two interacting factors: the development of the capacity for symbolic thought, particularly the capacity for understanding cause-effect relationships, and the capacity for self-observation and self-reflection. The development of a sense of personal agency begins in infancy and moves from the perception of the causal relationship between events to an understanding that actions produce results, to the recognition that one can produce actions that cause results. Children must learn that one event can cause another event, that they are separate from other things and people, and that they can be the origin of actions that effect their environments. As children’s understanding of language increases, so does their capacity for symbolic thought and, therefore, their capacity for self-awareness and a sense of personal agency.

Second, the development of self-efficacy beliefs is influenced by the responsiveness of environments, especially social environments, to the infant or child’s attempt at manipulation and control. Environments that are responsive to the child’s actions facilitate the development of self-efficacy beliefs, whereas nonresponsive environments retard this development. Parents can facilitate or hinder the development of this sense of agency by their responses to the infant or child’s actions and by encouraging and enabling the child to explore and master his or her environment.

Self-efficacy beliefs and a sense of agency continue to develop throughout the life span as people continually integrate information from five primary sources, presented here in roughly their descending order of importance in shaping self-efficacy beliefs. People’s own performance experiences—their own attempts to control their environments—are the most powerful source of self-efficacy information. Successful attempts at control that one attributes to one’s own efforts will strengthen self-efficacy for that behavior or domain. Perceptions of failure at control attempts usually diminish self-efficacy. Self-efficacy beliefs are influenced also by observations of the behavior of others and the consequences of those behaviors—referred to as vicarious experiences. People use this information to form expectancies about their own behavior and its consequences. People also can influence self-efficacy beliefs by imagining themselves or others behaving effectively or ineffectively in hypothetical situations. Self-efficacy beliefs can be influenced by verbal persuasion—what others say to a person about what they believe the person can or cannot do. The potency of verbal persuasion as a source of self-efficacy expectancies will be influenced by such factors as the expertness, trustworthiness, and attractiveness of the source. Physiological and emotional states influence self-efficacy when a person learns to associate poor performance or perceived failure with aversive physiological arousal and success with pleasant feeling states. In activities involving strength and stamina, such as exercise and athletic performances, perceived self-efficacy is influenced by such experiences as fatigue and pain.

Why Are Self-Efficacy Beliefs Important?

Self-efficacy beliefs influence everyday behavior in multiple and powerful ways. Most philosophers and psychological theorists agree that a sense of control over one’s behavior, one’s environment, and one’s own thoughts and feelings is essential for happiness and a sense of well-being. Feelings of loss of control are common among people who seek the help of psychotherapists and counselors. Self-efficacy beliefs play a major role in several common psychological problems, as well as in successful interventions for these problems. Low self-efficacy expectancies are an important feature of depression. Depressed people usually believe they are less capable than are other people of behaving effectively in many important areas of life. Dysfunctional anxiety and avoidant behavior are often the direct result of low self-efficacy expectancies for managing threatening situations. Self-efficacy beliefs play a powerful role in attempts to overcome substance abuse problems and eating disorders. For each of these problems, enhancing self-efficacy for overcoming the problem and for implementing self-control strategies in specific challenging situations is essential to the success of therapeutic interventions.

Self-efficacy beliefs influence physical health in two ways. First, they influence the adoption of healthy behaviors, the cessation of unhealthy behaviors, and the maintenance of behavioral changes in the face of challenge and difficulty. All the major psychological theories of health behavior, such as protection motivation theory, the health belief model, and the theory of reasoned action/planned behavior include self-efficacy as a key component. In addition, enhancing self-efficacy beliefs is crucial to successful change and maintenance of virtually every behavior crucial to health, including exercise, diet, stress management, safe sex, smoking cessation, overcoming alcohol abuse, compliance with treatment and prevention regimens, and disease detection behaviors such as breast self-examinations.

Second, self-efficacy beliefs influence a number of biological processes that, in turn, influence health and disease. Self-efficacy beliefs affect the body’s physiological responses to stress, including the immune system. Lack of perceived control over environmental demands can increase susceptibility to infections and hasten the progression of disease. Self-efficacy beliefs also influence the activation of catecholamines, a family of neurotransmitters important to the management of stress and perceived threat, along with the endogenous painkillers referred to as endorphins.

Self-efficacy beliefs are also crucial to successful self-regulation. Self-regulation depends on three interacting components: goals or standards of performance, self-evaluative reactions to performance, and self-efficacy beliefs. Goals are essential to self-regulation because people attempt to regulate their actions, thoughts, and emotions to achieve desired outcomes. Self-evaluative reactions are important in self-regulation because people’s beliefs about the progress they are making (or not making) toward their goals are major determinants of their emotional reactions during goal-directed activity. These emotional reactions, in turn, can enhance or disrupt self-regulation. Self-efficacy beliefs influence self-regulation in several ways. First, self-efficacy influences the goals people set. The higher people’s self-efficacy in a specific achievement domain, the loftier will be the goals that they set for themselves in that domain. Second, self-efficacy beliefs influence people’s choice of goal-directed activities, expenditure of effort, persistence in the face of challenge and obstacles, and reactions to perceived discrepancies between goals and current performance. Strong self-efficacy beliefs make people more resistant to the disruptions in self-regulation that can result from difficulties and setbacks. As a result, strong self-efficacy beliefs lead people to persevere under difficult and challenging circumstances. Perseverance usually produces desired results, and this success then strengthens self-efficacy beliefs. Third, self-efficacy for solving problems and making decisions influences the efficiency and effectiveness of problem solving and decision making. When faced with complex decisions, people who have confidence in their abilities to solve problems use their cognitive resources more effectively than do those people who doubt their cognitive skills. Such self-efficacy usually leads to better solutions and greater achievement.

Self-efficacy beliefs are crucial to the success of psychotherapy and other interventions for psychological problems. Different interventions, or different components of an intervention, may be equally effective because they equally enhance self-efficacy beliefs for crucial behavioral and cognitive skills. Self-efficacy theory emphasizes the importance of arranging experiences designed to increase the person’s sense of self-efficacy for specific behaviors in specific problematic and challenging situations. Self-efficacy theory suggests that formal interventions should not simply resolve specific problems, but should provide people with the skills and sense of self-efficacy for solving problems themselves.

The notion of self-efficacy can also be extended from the individual to the group through the concept of collective efficacy—the extent to which members of a group or organization believe that they can work together effectively to accomplish shared goals. Collective efficacy has been found to be important in several domains. The more efficacious that spouses feel about their shared ability to accomplish important shared goals, the more satisfied they are with their marriages. The collective efficacy of an athletic team can be raised or lowered by false feedback about ability and can subsequently influence its success in competitions. The individual and collective efficacy of teachers for effective instruction seems to affect the academic achievement of school children. The effectiveness of work teams and group brainstorming also seems to be related to a collective sense of efficacy. Researchers also are beginning to understand the origins of collective efficacy for social and political change.


  1. Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.
  2. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
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  4. Maddux, J. E. (1999). Expectancies and the social-cognitive perspective: Basic principles, processes, and variables. In I. Kirsch (Ed.), How expectancies shape behavior (pp. 17-40). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.