Defining the Difference: Self-Efficacy, Self-Confidence, and Self-Esteem
While most people generally think of self-esteem and self-confidence as two names for the same thing, and probably rarely think about the term “self-efficacy,” these three terms hold slightly different meanings for the psychologists who study them (Druckman & Bjork, 1994; Oney, & Oksuzoglu-Guven, 2015).
What is Self-Efficacy?
Albert Bandura is arguably the most cited author on the subject of self-efficacy, and he defines self-efficacy as an individual’s beliefs about their capacity to influence the events in their own lives (Bandura, 1977).
This differs from self-esteem in an important way: the definition of self-esteem often rests on ideas about an individual’s worth or worthiness, while self-efficacy is rooted in beliefs about an individual’s capabilities to handle future situations. In this sense, self-esteem is more of a present-focused belief while self-efficacy is more of a forward-looking belief.
What is Self-Confidence?
This is likely the most used term for these related concepts outside of psychological research, but there is still some confusion about what exactly self-confidence is. One of the most cited sources about self-confidence refers to it as simply believing in oneself (Bénabou & Tirole, 2002).
Another popular article defines self-confidence as an individual’s expectations of performance and self-evaluations of abilities and prior performance (Lenney, 1977).
Finally, Psychology Dictionary Online defines self-confidence as an individual’s trust in his or her own abilities, capacities, and judgments, or belief that he or she can successfully face day to day challenges and demands (Psychology Dictionary Online).
Self-confidence also brings about more happiness. Typically, when you are confident in your abilities, you are happier due to your successes. When you are feeling better about your capabilities, the more energized and motivated you are to take action and achieve your goals.
Self-confidence, then, is similar to self-efficacy in that it tends to focus on the individual’s future performance; however, it seems to be based on prior performance, and so in a sense, it also focuses on the past.
Many psychologists tend to refer to self-efficacy when considering an individual’s beliefs about their abilities concerning a specific task or set of tasks, while self-confidence is more often referred to as a broader and more stable trait concerning an individual’s perceptions of overall capability.
What is Self-Esteem?
The most influential voices in self-esteem research were, arguably, Morris Rosenberg and Nathaniel Branden. In his 1965 book, Society and the Adolescent Self-Image, Rosenberg discussed his take on self-esteem and introduced his widely used accepted Self-Esteem Scale.
A Free PDF of the Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale is available here.
His definition of self-esteem rested on the assumption that it was a relatively stable belief about one’s overall self-worth. This is a broad definition of self-esteem, defining it as a trait that is influenced by many different factors and is relatively difficult to change.
In contrast, Branden believes self-esteem is made up of two distinct components: self-efficacy, or the confidence we have in our ability to cope with life’s challenges, and self-respect, or the belief that we are deserving of happiness, love, and success (1969).
The definitions are similar, but it is worth noting that Rosenberg’s definition relies on beliefs about self-worth, a belief which can have wildly different meanings to different people, while Branden is more specific about which beliefs are involved in self-esteem.
What about those who have too much self-esteem? Could narcissism be the result of having too much self-esteem? A psychological definition would be that narcissism is an extreme amount of selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.
Self-esteem at high and low levels can be damaging, so it is important to strike a balance in the middle. A realistic but positive view of the self is often ideal.
Where does self-esteem come from? What influence does it have on our lives? Self-esteem is often seen as a personality trait, which means it tends to be stable and enduring.
There are typically three components which make up self-esteem:
- Self-esteem is an essential human need that is vital for survival and normal, healthy development
- Self-esteem arises automatically from within based on a person’s beliefs and consciousness
- Self-esteem occurs in conjunction with a person’s thoughts, behaviors, feelings, and actions.
Self-esteem is one of the basic human motivations in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow would suggest that individuals need both esteem from other people as well as inner self-respect. These needs must be fulfilled in order for an individual to grow and thrive.
These needs must be fulfilled in order for an individual to grow and achieve self-actualization. Self-confidence and self-esteem are two closely related psychological phenomena, both based on past experiences and both looking forward at future performance.
Popular Theories of Self-Confidence
With these definitions in hand, we can take a closer look at common beliefs and popular theories surrounding self-confidence and self-esteem.
As noted earlier, Branden’s theory of self-esteem became a widely referenced and understood theory, but there were also other theories and frameworks for understanding self-esteem in the psychological literature.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an iconic although somewhat out-of-date framework in psychology, theorizes that there are several needs that humans must have met to be truly fulfilled, but, generally, the most basic needs must be met before more complex needs can be met (1943). In his pyramid, self-esteem is the second highest level of need, just under self-actualization.
According to Maslow, humans must have their needs of physiological stability, safety, love and belonging met before they can develop healthy self-esteem. He also noted that there are two kinds of self-esteem, a “higher” and a “lower,” the lower self-esteem derived from the respect of others, while the higher self-esteem comes from within.
In the years following his introduction of the hierarchy of needs, Maslow refined his theory to accommodate the instances of highly self-actualized people who are homeless or individuals who live in a dangerous area or war zone but are also high in self-esteem.
This hierarchy is no longer considered as a strict theory of unidirectional growth, but a more general explanation of how basic needs being met allow individuals the freedom and ability to achieve their more complex ones.
Terror Management Theory
A darker theory that delves a bit deeper into the human experience to explain self-confidence is the Terror Management Theory.
Terror Management Theory (TMT) is based on the idea that humans hold great potential for responding with terror to the awareness of their own mortality, and that worldviews that emphasize peoples’ beliefs in their own significance as humans protect them against this terror (Greenberg & Arndt, 2011).
TMT posits that self-esteem forms as a way to protect and buffer against anxiety, and subsequently, people strive for self-confidence and react negatively to anyone or anything that could undermine their beliefs in their comforting worldview.
Mark Leary, a social psychologist who researches self-esteem in the context of evolutionary psychology, also contributed a theory of self-esteem to the literature.
The Sociometer Theory suggests that self-esteem is an internal gauge of the degree to which one is included vs. excluded by others (Leary, 2006). This theory rests on the conception of self-esteem as an internal individual perception of social acceptance and rejection.
There is some strong evidence for the accuracy and applicability of this theory. For example, studies have shown that the outcomes of events on people’s self-esteem generally match up with their assumptions about how the same events would cause other people to accept or reject them (Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995).
Finally, evidence shows that social exclusion based on personal characteristics decreases self-esteem (Leary et al., 1995).