What is Self-Efficacy?

The theory of self-efficacy was developed by Stanford psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura in the 1970s as an outgrowth of social learning theory. 

Bandura recognized that people strive to exercise control over the conditions that affect their lives. He applied the term “self-efficacy” to the belief that we can achieve influence over our life circumstances. By developing and executing positive courses of action, we can take charge of life’s ever-changing circumstances and thereby influence their outcome. 

Through self-efficacy, we are able to influence how we think, feel, motivate ourselves, and act. Individuals with high self-efficacy have confidence in their abilities, approach difficult tasks as a challenge, become highly engaged, maintain a strong commitment to success, and keep a positive attitude. People with low self-efficacy believe things are tougher than they are, avoid difficult tasks, give up in the face of obstacles, and have difficulty managing negative emotions. 

We can develop self-efficacy in four ways. The first is through mastery experiences; that is, setting ever-more-difficult goals and achieving them. If people experience only easy successes, they expect quick results and are easily discouraged by failure. By sticking it out through tough times, they emerge stronger and more resilient.

The second way to develop self-efficacy is through modeling. Seeing people like ourselves succeed through perseverance raises our belief that we, too, have what it takes to succeed. Positive models display effective skills and strategies for managing whatever is thrown in their—or our—path.

Social persuasion is the third way of strengthening self-efficacy. When others provide positive feedback and encouragement, we are likely to make a greater effort and keep trying, even when self-doubts arise.

Finally, we judge our capabilities through our physiological and emotional reactions. Stress and tension make us vulnerable to poor performance, but positive mood enhances self-efficacy. If we can reduce stress and negative emotions, we can better overcome obstacles. Interestingly, the intensity of emotional and physical reactions is less important than how we perceive and interpret those reactions. For example, people who have high self-efficacy often view stress as a means of energizing performance rather than allowing it to debilitate them.

Using self-efficacy to manage chronic disease can result in new, healthy behaviors, greater self-care and tolerance of symptoms, increased ability to cope, and less anxiety and depression.

Diane Cook, practicing daily self-efficacy in Paris

Diane Cook, practicing daily self-efficacy in Paris

Dr. Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy is described in:

Albert Bandura, “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change,” Psychological Review 84 (1977): 191–215.

Albert Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986).

Albert Bandura, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (NewYork: Freeman, 1997).