Self-efficacy is the belief we have in our abilities and competencies.
Many years and several thousand studies’ worth of research have demonstrated how critical this belief is for helping us to achieve our goals.
This remains true whether we are planning out an entirely new career trajectory or determining the odds of burning our dinner on the stove.
So how do we develop this central belief in our capabilities?
In this article, we’ll walk you through the four key sources of self-efficacy and provide you with a range of strategies to increase your or others’ self-efficacy across different facets of life.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will not only help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself but will also give you the tools to help your clients, students or employees show more compassion to themselves.
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How Self-Efficacy Develops
Self-efficacy is defined as…
“… an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments.”
Carey & Forsyth (2009)
Bandura (1977) recognized four salient sources of self-efficacy and asserted that it is by the interplay of these factors that we develop significant belief or disbelief in our abilities.
1. Mastery Experiences
Among the four sources of self-efficacy, Bandura identified mastery experiences as the most powerful driver of self-efficacy (1977).
Mastery experiences are the experiences we gain when taking on new challenges and succeeding (Akhtar, 2008). For instance, a person who does not consider him or herself very skilled at cooking may increase their self-efficacy in this area by successfully cooking different dishes for several nights.
According to Smith (2002), there are two reasons why mastery experiences may have the greatest benefits for self-efficacy.
First, mastery experiences are based on direct, personal experience rather than secondhand accounts. Therefore, by drawing on this direct evidence of our performance from the past, we become able to infer our capabilities in the future.
Secondly, mastery experiences allow us to observe direct links between an investment of effort and successful performance, thereby increasing expectancy judgments about our ability to perform well in particular situations (Vroom, 1964).
2. Vicarious Experiences
The second source of self-efficacy is vicarious experiences. Bandura (1977) argued that when we observe others succeeding (or failing) at activities, we can estimate our own likelihood of success or failure when performing similar activities based on the similarity or difference we perceive between ourselves and the person we are observing (Wood & Bandura, 1989).
To illustrate, imagine a young man who observes a man of similar age on the television lifting enormous dumbbells. Given that the man on the television is of a similar age to him, the viewer might reasonably expect that he, too, could lift dumbbells of similar weight, motivating him to work out harder at the gym.
An eighty-year-old man watching the weightlifter, on the other hand, is more likely to perceive a greater discrepancy between himself and the weightlifter. Therefore, watching the weightlifter is less likely to increase his self-efficacy about his ability to lift weights than it is for the younger man.
3. Verbal Persuasion
Next is verbal persuasion. According to (Wood & Bandura, 1989):
“… if people receive realistic encouragement, they will be more likely to exert greater effort and to become successful than if they are troubled by self-doubts.”
Wood & Bandura, 1989 (p. 365)
In sum, a few words of encouragement will rarely go amiss.
To illustrate, imagine a vocalist who is about to take the microphone but is feeling nervous. If that vocalist’s friend were to remind her of all the practice she’s undertaken recently, as well as how wonderful she sounds each time she sings, it is likely the vocalist’s self-efficacy would increase, and she’d feel a little less nervous.
4. Physiological Arousal
The final source of self-efficacy is physiological arousal, otherwise known as affective or emotional arousal. This final driver recognizes the association between fatigue or tiredness and a lack of capacity to perform (Bandura, 1986).
Likewise, unpleasant emotional states like fear, anxiety, and depression can have the global effect of making us feel less competent overall, thereby filtering down to affect our more specific self-efficacy judgments in particular situations (Conger & Kanungo, 1988).
For instance, drawing on an example from research (Jones, Mace, Bray, MacRae, & Stockbridge, 2002), imagine a novice climber preparing to scale a cliff face. A climber experiencing more physiological stress (e.g., weariness, tension) is likely to have less belief in their ability to execute the correct climbing technique than a climber not experiencing physiological stress.
Overall, physiological arousal is sometimes argued to be the least powerful driver of self-efficacy (Chowdhury, Endres, & Lanis, 2002), given that it is usually only distally related to our ability to perform. For instance, whether or not we are more tired than usual shouldn’t bear as significant an impact on our belief about whether we can write a 1000-word essay in the same way that our previous experiences of writing will.
What is Low Self-Efficacy?
Above, we’ve defined self-efficacy as an individual’s belief in their capacity to execute behaviors and attain a particular level of performance (Carey & Forsyth, 2009).
Therefore, those who exhibit high self-efficacy generally will hold optimistic beliefs about their ability to cope with stress, resist temptations, and persist in the face of challenges.
In contrast, people with low self-efficacy will be more pessimistic about their ability to tolerate stress, give up on goals more quickly, and draw on less adaptive coping strategies when experiencing stress (Bandura, 1997).
As a consequence, people with low self-efficacy are more likely to avoid challenges. They are also vulnerable to self-fulfilling prophecies of failure and learned helplessness (Margolis & McCabe, 2006).
3 Examples of Low Self-Efficacy in Research
Self-efficacy has been shown to be a critical determinant of wellbeing and effective functioning across a range of domains.
To illustrate, let’s take a closer look at three examples of low self-efficacy and its correlates in research.
1. Low self-efficacy and depression
Findings have shown that low self-efficacy can predict symptoms of depression in certain populations suffering from disease. One study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine (Shnek et al., 1997) explored the ways self-efficacy and learned helplessness impacted individuals with brain and spinal cord injuries.
On examining a large sample of multiple sclerosis patients, researchers found that low self-efficacy was a powerful indicator of depression and helplessness among patients with nervous system dysfunctions.
Further, the study indicated that cognitive distortions in people with low self-efficacy indirectly contributed to their depressive symptoms and led to impaired perceptions of the self and one’s surroundings.
2. Low self-efficacy and pain management
Another study has shown that low self-efficacy can thwart the intended effects of medical interventions. For example, one study by Holman and Lorig (1992) assessed the effects of individual differences on the effectiveness of a pain management intervention program for helping patients with arthritis and related conditions.
Their research revealed that patients who scored low on indices of overall self-efficacy showed fewer improvements during the program. On the other hand, those exhibiting high self-efficacy showed significant pain reduction by the end of the program.
The researchers believed that these differences could, in part, be attributed to participants’ belief in their ability to successfully carry out the behaviors involved with the intervention, thereby illustrating the importance of self-efficacy for healing.
3. Low self-efficacy and career development
Finally, low self-efficacy has been shown to impact career trajectories among women.
In a detailed theory-building piece, scholars Hackett and Betz (1981) argue that, as a consequence of socialization, women are likely to possess less self-efficacy than men when realizing their capabilities in their careers. This is because women have less access to the four sources of self-efficacy information described previously when it comes to their careers.
For instance, women are more likely to have been exposed to female role models in domestic roles compared to careers. Therefore, this provides a limited source of self-efficacy information in the form of vicarious modeling (Hackett & Betz, 1981).
4 Ways to Increase Self-Efficacy
Let’s now consider four strategies that can be used to help increase self-efficacy.
1. Get out of the comfort zone
We’re often encouraged to get out of our comfort zones, and for a good reason.
Leaving one’s comfort zone involves trial and error, learning, and the opportunity to engage in new, meaningful pursuits. Although leaving our comfort zone can be frightening initially, the benefit is that the more we experience success when venturing beyond our comfort zone, the more we can increase our self-efficacy.
Likewise, even when we fail, bouncing back and recovering from failure provides opportunities to increase our resilience.
Here are some simple ideas to get you out of your comfort zone and into your growth zone:
- Take a one-day class in a skill you’ve never tried.
- Meet someone new at a speed-dating or social event.
- Try out a social support, or begin training for an event (e.g., a fun-run).
- Go somewhere in your town you’ve heard about but never been before.
2. Set SMART goals
Effective goal-setting is argued to increase self-efficacy across a range of areas, including language interpretation (Bates, 2016), health-related behavior change (Bailey, 2017), and work performance (Weintraub, Cassell, & DePatie, in press).
Therefore, it is a good idea to build and sustain self-efficacy by setting reasonable goals that we tackle one at a time. Likewise, it can be useful to break down large goals into smaller, more manageable subgoals. A good goal-setting framework can help with this.
3. Look at the bigger picture
One of the most significant qualities of people with high self-efficacy is the power to look beyond short-term losses and not letting them break their self-trust. We have higher goals to achieve, and sticking to this perspective helps in maintaining a high self-efficacy. Self-efficacy allows us to sort our priorities, make better plans, and focus on them more efficiently.
4. Reframe obstacles
Obstacles are a natural part of moving beyond our comfort zones and tackling challenges. Therefore, it is important to think about obstacles in a constructive way that does not risk undermining our self-efficacy.
Here are a few ideas to help:
- Set implementation intentions by creating an if-then plan. That is, ask yourself in advance of pursuing a goal what challenges you might reasonably expect to arise during goal pursuit. Then decide what action you will take in response to those challenges (Gollwitzer & Brandstätter, 1997).
- Think of obstacles playfully as though they were a test (e.g., from the universe)–this is what the Stoics did many years ago and continue to do today. In responding to these ‘tests,’ try to (a) systematically come up with the most effective solution to the obstacle and (b) remain emotionally calm while putting your solution into action (Irvine, 2019).
- Reflect on challenging obstacles you have overcome in the past. By doing this, you will be bringing past mastery experiences to the forefront of your mind, thereby helping to increase your self-efficacy in the present.
How To Best Promote Self-Efficacy In Education
A search for research on self-efficacy will return many studies exploring the topic’s applications in the classroom. This is because self-efficacy has been shown to be a crucial determinant of academic success across a wide variety of subjects studied by both child and adult learners (Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991).
Critical to the relationship between self-efficacy and academic achievement is the role of persistence. That is, students who possess greater academic self-efficacy will be more likely to invest ongoing effort in their studies, even when it’s difficult, thereby helping them achieve greater academic outcomes.
It is for this reason that many elementary school curricula include components aimed at increasing students’ self-efficacy. By doing so, they help these students become lifelong learners who feel confident that they can achieve their academic goals and persevere through challenges.
Let’s now consider five research-backed strategies for increasing students’ self-efficacy in the classroom.
1. Flipped classrooms and collaborative learning approaches
Several studies have shown that teaching methods characterized by an interactive and collaborative approach result in students who exhibit higher self-efficacy than those learning via more traditional approaches, such as via lectures (Ibrahim & Callaway, 2014).
In particular, one study found that ‘alternative’ teaching strategies, such as conceptual problem-solving assignments, led to greater increases in self-efficacy than discussions and lectures (Fencl & Scheel, 2005).
2. Verbal Persuasion
We’ve already explored the importance of verbal persuasion as one potential source of information about our capabilities. Therefore, when parents and teachers communicate belief in a person’s ability to achieve academic objectives, their self-efficacy will likely increase. This is particularly the case for children, who tend to believe the words of trusted adults in their lives.
Here are simple ways parents and teachers can persuade young learners of their abilities (adapted from Siegle & McCoach, 2007):
- Provide words of encouragement. For example, “You can do it,” “You are smart enough,” and “I trust you.”
- Make young learners aware of their strengths, and let them know how to apply them effectively to their current pursuits. For instance, a teacher might inform a young boy of how well he’s performed in a recent vocabulary test and then let him know how valuable those skills are likely to be in an upcoming story-writing assignment.
- Likewise, draw students’ attention to their growth and how much they have improved over time. Doing so will strengthen the student’s overarching belief in their capacity to learn, not just their self-efficacy surrounding specific subject matter.
- Praise students for their investment of effort, not just their successes. Let them know you can see how hard they’ve tried and that they should be proud of their persistence.
3. Tailor your teaching
Where possible, allowing students to leverage their strengths and work toward goals that are aligned with their ability level will help students stay motivated.
Here are some suggestions to help with this:
- Teach students how to use goal-setting frameworks (e.g., SMART goals) to break large goals into smaller goals of a size that suits them.
- Create psychological safety that allows students to talk openly about challenges they may be facing.
- Avoid making comparisons between students and their abilities. Instead, note differences between a single student’s present and past achievement, thereby highlighting their improvement over time.
- Where possible, allow students to set goals according to individual abilities. For example, make a range of books at different reading levels available to your students and allow them to read at a level that suits them.
4. Vicarious modeling
Turning again to our four sources of self-efficacy, ensure that your students have access to academic role models who can inspire them.
One longitudinal study has shown that young people who have access to one race- and gender-matched role model will perform better academically up to 24 months following initial assessment. They will also report having more achievement-oriented goals, derive greater enjoyment from achievement-related activities, and think more about their futures (Zirkel, 2002).
This fundamental understanding of the importance of role models underlies many school-based mentorship programs aimed at supporting students with learning disabilities or who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Another option to support self-efficacy via vicarious modeling is peer mentoring, which is argued to benefit learning outcomes among children with learning disabilities (Steiner, n.d.). This can involve matching students based on their gender, cultural groups, and type of disability and assigning them to peer mentors with similar backgrounds.
The mentors then share personal experiences of successes, motivational stories, and guidance with their mentees. Additionally, programs such as these also give children the opportunity to openly share concerns or challenges with a like-minded peer who can empathize and relate.
5. Use multiple delivery modes
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that all of us learn differently. Therefore, some students will learn best by reading, others will learn through lectures or video, and others will learn through hands-on, tactile experiences.
When you can, try to provide content in a range of mediums so students have the opportunity to learn via the medium that suits them best, thereby helping them enjoy more mastery experiences as they succeed at their studies
2 Worksheets Designed to Build Self-Efficacy
1. The Who I Am Assessment
The Who I Am assessment is a simple one-page worksheet that increases self-awareness.
By filling in the different sections of the worksheet, you will discover more about who you are across the domains of work, studies, hobbies, and more.
In doing so, you will gain an increased understanding of where your strengths and interests lie, serving to highlight personal sources of self-efficacy.
2. Self-Efficacy Worksheet by Alexandra Franzen
This worksheet encourages you to explore a range of questions about who you are and how you engage with your passions and others in the world via a series of ten questions.
These questions help you gain self-insight and discover why the work you do is important, your hidden quirks, and even your secret alias in a positive, uplifting reflection on sources of self-efficacy.
3 Self-Efficacy Scales
1. The Self-Efficacy For Exercise (SEE) Scale
The SEE Scale is a simple self-report measure that indicates the self-efficacy of the participants. The test consists of nine statements that reflect your mental well-being, and the responses are categorized on a 10-point scale. Higher scores in the test imply a higher self-efficacy, and the proof is applicable for a wide range of the population.
2. Self-Efficacy Worksheet by McAuley
This exercise was first published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 1993 and has been in use since then. The test items explore daily practices (such as exercising), and the participants respond to them by how confident they feel about practicing them.
3. Self-Efficacy Scale by Neupert, Lachman, & Whitbourne
This scale is an adaptation of Albert Bandura’s Self-Efficacy Model and contains questions about daily exercising. The answers are recorded on a Likert Scale ranging from 1 (Very sure) to 4 (Not at all sure), and a higher score indicates greater self-efficacy in the participant.
A Take-Home Message
If Bandura’s work on self-efficacy has taught us anything, it’s that believing in yourself is half the battle. This is because when we believe in ourselves and our abilities, we’re more motivated to invest sustained effort toward achieving our goals.
We hope this article has given you some ideas for how you might strengthen your own self-efficacy at work, in your studies, and in everything else. Perhaps even more importantly, you now know how easy it is to boost the self-efficacy of others.
So, the next time someone in your life says, “I don’t think I can do this,” you now know the power that simple words of affirmation can have on their self-belief.
So let them know: You’ve got this!
Lastly, don’t forget to download our 3 Self Compassion Exercises for free.
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