Albert Bandura, aged 93, is one of the most renowned living psychologists in the field of psychology, as well one of the most cited (Haggbloom et al., 2002).
Throughout his career, Bandura contributed to many branches of psychology including social cognitive theory, reciprocal determinism, and the famous ‘Bobo Doll Experiments.’
Today, Bandura continues his work to broaden our understanding of the human psyche. Unsurprisingly, he has significantly influenced positive psychology. His theory of self-efficacy, as a part of social cognitive theory, is fundamental to positive psychology.
In his own words:
Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to influence events that effect one’s life and control over the way these events are experienced. (Bandura, 1994).
This article will explore the power of self-efficacy to motivate individuals to exhibit control over their life.
This article contains:
An Agentic Perspective on Positive Psychology
Bandura presents his views on positive psychology in “An Agentic Perspective on Positive Psychology” (Bandura, 2008), specifically in a chapter from a larger collection of writings.
In this chapter, Bandura expresses his view of agentic positive psychology where he emphasizes human capacity over human failings and dysfunction. In his research, self-efficacy seems to be influenced by certain factors.
When developed, self-efficacy positively affects all facets of human experience.
Throughout his writing, Bandura critiques the predominantly negative and pathology-focused approach in the discipline of psychology. This historic or “disease model” approach contrasts to positive psychology’s pro-self-efficacy approach.
Bandura also addresses the “pathology of optimism,” as compared to realism towards dealing with life events.
This entire chapter is an inspirational and encouraging push to research human agency and self-efficacy more. Positive psychology perspectives have been completely revolutionized by Bandura’s findings.
According to Bandura, self-efficacy is not a trait that some have and others do not. Instead, it is the ability to exercise and strengthen one’s self-efficacy, regardless of their past or current environment.
He offers four ways to do this, which we will delve into now.
4 Ways to Build Self-Efficacy
By consolidating his research into four action-items, Bandura offers a tangible way to develop self-efficacy. As people succeed in any of these four ways, their self-efficacy grows.
1) Mastery Experiences
This refers to experiencing the results of self-efficacy first hand. The key to mastery is approaching life with dedicated efforts and experimenting with realistic but challenging goals. People need to acknowledge the satisfaction of goals that are achieved, in order to reap the pleasure of mastery.
Easy success with little effort can lead to us to expect rapid results which can, in turn, make us easily discouraged by failure (Bandura, 2008). In that same paper, Bandura describes the idea that:
Success is achieved by learning from failed efforts.
Experiencing failure is important so that we can build resilience to it. This is done by treating every failure as a learning opportunity and a chance to reach competence with a different approach.
2) Social Modeling
This means that people choose role-models who demonstrate their self-efficacy. Motivation can be found by observing those who employ this in their lives and have reached their goals despite adversity.
Seeing people similar to oneself succeed with consistent effort, raises the observers’ beliefs in their own abilities to succeed (Bandura, 2008).
With modern technology, it is not necessary to draw role-models from one’s own social surroundings. The internet and other digital resources can provide windows into the lives of many inspiring models.
3) Social Persuasion
When people believe in their own ability, they tend to encounter more success. In this way, self-efficacy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This mode is often about ‘finding the right mentor.’ While social modeling refers to the observation of a role model, social persuasion is about having others directly influence one’s self-efficacy and providing opportunities for mastery experiences in a safe manner.
Due to the specific nature of self-efficacy strengthening experiences (avoiding easy successes and overwhelming failures), it is essential that mentors are “knowledgeable and practice what they preach” (Bandura, 2008).
4) States of Physiology
Lastly, our emotions, moods and physical states influence our interpretation of self-efficacy.
It is easy to judge oneself with bias based on the state one in when a failure occurs. While it is normal to feel tension, anxiety, and weariness, it is common to feel like a societal disappointment when these feelings occur.
Positive and negative emotions are magnets that influence one’s sense of self-efficacy, especially in the case of a depressed mood when control can feel out of reach. People with low self-efficacy may give-up sooner than people with high self-efficacy (Bandura, 2008).
Introspection and education can prevent these physical states from being interpreted negatively. For example, when experiencing a personal or work-related “failure,” people can practice compassion towards themselves as people who make mistakes.
In short, changing negative misinterpretations of physical and affective states is key, in order to build self-efficacy (Bandura, 2008).
The strength self-efficacy scale is one tool which can help build insight and introspection, and alleviate the need for judging ourselves too harshly when we make mistakes.
How Self-Efficacy Can Influence You
Albert Bandura goes on in this chapter to explain how. the degree to which someone believes in their own self-efficacy influences their functioning.
This is expressed in four categories: cognitive, motivational, emotional, and decisional.
Thinking in self-enhancing (optimistic) or self-debilitating (pessimistic) ways can influence one’s functioning.
If someone believes that their actions impact their experience and the environment, they are more prone to a self-sustaining optimistic view; in other words, no matter what the circumstance is, “something“ can be done to affect the ultimate outcome.
Without this belief, a more pessimistic thought process can dominate, and events might be interpreted as ‘out-of-my-hands.’
When the individual is a passenger in the ride that is their life, there is no room for agency.
Based on how opportunities and obstacles are interpreted, it is easy to believe that any effort is futile in the face of obstacles. Why not give up then?
The alternative offers a way of seeing obstacles as something to overcome if the right skills and motivation are developed and practiced.
Self-efficacy means believing in the value of motivation to influence any outcome. If someone does not feel driven to alter an event, then why exert any effort towards the circumstance? It would feel like a waste of energy.
Thus, feeling secure in this belief leads to self-determined motivation. It is not a question of “can I reach my goal?” but rather “what is required for me to reach my goal?”
Often, collective-efficacy needs to be considered: what does a group believe they can achieve in terms of a common goal? As Bandura quotes:
People’s shared belief in their collective efficacy to achieve desired results is a key ingredient of collective agency.
States of physiology (such as our moods and feelings) influence self-efficacy, but it works in reverse as well. We discussed earlier what low self-efficacy feels like, emotionally.
Conversely, a strong sense of self-efficacy means recognizing that it is normal (and very human) to feel discouraged in the face of failure. With healthy doses of optimism and resilience in the face of “failure,” humans prove to accomplish seemingly impossible feats.
This is because believing in one’s ability to ‘bounce back’ can influence the outcome of an experience.
When we learn that we are not at the mercy of our physiological states, we become less susceptible to emotional reactions. We are then able to grow competent in our self-efficacy to deal with emotional challenges. This relates to the concept of emotional intelligence.
Self-efficacy also means that there is a choice with how we choose to experience our situation. By employing self-efficacy one can choose which environments are best suited for their growth and development.
This addresses the idea of destiny verse agency, where people develop their own destinies—and create the opportunities they desire—through thoughtful choices and deliberate actions.
Pathologizing Optimism: Visions to Realities
Albert Bandura makes a point in his writing to address the trend of “pathologizing optimism.”
He proposes that while realism is useful when risks are high and failure likely, it can often act as a hindrance to progress (Bandura, 2008). He goes on to review that:
Human well-being and attainments require an optimistic and resilient sense of efficacy. This is because the usual daily realities are strewn with difficulties. They are full of frustrations, conflicts, impediments, adversities, failures, setbacks, and inequities. To succeed, one cannot afford to be a realist.
In situations where time, effort, and resources are the tradeoffs, optimism can provide the appropriate self-efficacy to achieve otherwise unreachable goals.
There are many personal and social benefits of turning “visions into realities.” Bandura expresses his opinions on the importance of optimism for self-efficacy as:
“the risks of overconfidence are studied extensively, but the self-limiting costs of under confidence are largely ignored” (Bandura, 2008).
Misconceptions about Self-Efficacy
Addressing the skepticism of self-efficacy, Albert Bandura argues that it is not self-centered and selfish, contrary to what some psychological researchers may propose.
Self-Efficacy is Not Selfish
Bandura explains that self-efficacy can actually uplift society, highlighting Gandhi’s self-sacrifice as an example of his “unwavering self-efficacy for social change under powerful opposition.”
He also states how:
“Without a resilient sense of efficacy, people are easily overwhelmed by adversities in their efforts to improve their lives and that of others” (Bandura, 2008).
Self-efficacy remains static in its definition and benefit across all cultures, regardless of individualistic or collectivistic characteristics.
Both of these points counter the proposed ideas that self-efficacy is inherently self-centered.
How Self-Efficacy can Help Overcome Environment
Some theories of psychopathology deem inner-city populations as inclined to negative outcomes, but Bandura argues the opposite. With self-efficacy, individuals overcome their daunting environments and go on to lead fulfilling lives free of crime, psychopathology, and harmful behaviors.
Bandura proposes that it is in the face of difficult circumstances, self-efficacy is even more necessary, rather than some aloof “feel-good” goal without tangibility.
If employed well, self-efficacy can bring positive role-models, resourceful social-networks, and create nurturing environments, which result in progression and fulfillment.
Bandura feels this challenges the diathesis-stress model, which states that stress is an inevitable reaction when the internal threshold is out of balance. Bandura believes this model disregards the role of an individual’s agency in how they manage their own stress.
Self-Efficacy and Substance Abuse
In the case of substance abuse, specifically smoking, Bandura goes through the proposed biological and psychological mechanisms inhibiting those who wish to quit their addiction.
He makes a strong case for self-efficacy as a mediating factor in working through these factors.
This is validated by the majority population of ex-smokers who stopped their nicotine addiction without outside aid. Bandura does not dismiss the relevance of biological and psychological mechanisms in quitting.
In all of this, he mainly emphasizes that self-efficacy can play a role in the addiction rehabilitation process.
Bandura also reflects on the current medical system and how few preventive measures are available to the general population.
Research predominantly seems to focus on what and how things go “wrong” in the human body, rather than studies around health promotion of lifestyle choices and what makes humans thrive.
Self-efficacy can be a tool to make better decisions in life and take control of one’s health where possible.
Examples of some preventative self-efficacy health methods are being physically active, reducing dietary fat, refraining from smoking, keeping blood pressure down, and developing ways to manage stress (Bandura, 2008).
There are many reasons for research to focus on the lifestyles that help humans stay healthy. Also quoted by Bandura in this article is the idea that:
“Current health practices focus heavily on the medical supply side. The growing pressure on health systems is to reduce, ration, and delay health services to contain health costs.”
What if research also could pour time and money into how to teach self-regulatory skills and spread awareness and access to healthy lifestyles?
After all, personal, behavioral, and environmental determinants all influence each other. To increase the quality of a given human’s life, perhaps it is time to research self-efficacy further, and include ways for high self-efficacy to be part of the social expectations of each other.
Albert Bandura’s chapter on an agentic perspective challenges us to reconsider the popular cynicism of today.
Bandura explains that only through mastery of our thoughts, motivations, emotions, and decisions—with the guidance and examples set by role models—can we truly recognize our ability to shape the world.
To face life without self-efficacy is to narrow one’s own scope when navigating the often daunting obstacles of life.
For those who were inspired by these highlights of “An Agentic Perspective of Positive Psychology” by Albert Bandura (2008), the full chapter is freely available online for a more detailed reading.
How do you think self-efficacy and collective-efficacy interplay? We would love to read your ideas in our comments section.
Want to Know More about Albert Bandura?
Find out more about Albert Bandura’s life, or read his paper on social learning theory.
We also recommend this interview for further learning of one of today’s most influential psychologists:
About the Author
Justin Buchanan is a counseling psychologist, originally based in the Netherlands and currently expanding his training in psychology in the United States. He is also a member of the American Counseling Association (ACA).
Bandura, A. (1994). Self‐efficacy. John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
Bandura, A. (2008). An agentic perspective on positive psychology. Positive psychology: Exploring the best in people, 1, 167-196.
Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, R., Warnick, J. E., Jones, V. K., Yarbrough, G. L., Russell, T. M., … & Monte, E. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6(2), 139.