Are you an active person? This is a question you might face when planning your week, volunteering for a task, or swiping on dating apps. Questions like this are broad, and they require a certain amount of confidence to answer “yes.” If you’re confident, you may say that you’re active, or successful, or any other positive trait. But this page is not about confidence…it’s about self-efficacy.
But can you get to the gym five days this week? Can you run three miles tomorrow? Are you able to work out for an hour straight this morning? These are different questions than “are you an active person?” A person can be active but not feel up to running three miles if they’re hungover or depressed or stay active by walking or doing yoga. Conversely, a person may believe that they are able to run three miles, but do not otherwise see them as an active person. Yet, having both self-efficacy and confidence is key to accomplishing overall goals. We just need to understand what they are and how to nurture them to show up every day and do our best.
This page is all about what self-efficacy is, how to develop it, and how it limits us or gives us the confidence to do things we otherwise may not do.
What Is Self-Efficacy?
Self-efficacy is the belief that we can complete a certain task. This is a more specific belief. Rather than the belief that we are “active” or “a runner,” self-efficacy is what tells us we are capable of running a certain distance or with a certain pace.
Self-Worth vs. Self-Efficacy
Self-worth, confidence, and self-esteem are terms that speak to your overall abilities and traits over time. Self-efficacy is more specific. A person may believe that they are capable of completing a task in certain conditions, but not others. Of course, these beliefs can be changed and altered and may have an effect on broader beliefs like self-worth.
Who First Studied Self-Efficacy?
Psychologists took note of self-efficacy after Albert Bandura introduced the term in 1997. Bandura spent decades studying how people observe others to learn new skills and information. (He is the psychologist behind the famous Bobo Doll Experiment from the 1960s.) His central work was originally called the Social Learning Theory but evolved into Social Cognitive Theory over time. The concept of self-efficacy aided in this evolution.
The Four Sources of Self-Efficacy
Bandura identified four sources of self-efficacy that shape how a person believes they will perform in certain circumstances. These sources are:
- Mastery experiences
- Vicarious experiences
- Verbal persuasion
- Physiological and affective states
As you read about these different factors, think of how your beliefs change.
Mastery experience refers to the successes and failures a person has had in the past. For example, if you have gotten every job that you have interviewed for, you are likely to believe that you will get the next job you interview for. If you failed a task previously, especially recently, you are less likely to believe that your next attempt will be a success.
Keep in mind that mastery experiences are just one source of self-efficacy. All of these sources work together to form your beliefs. Verbal persuasion regarding failure and your explanations of failure, for example, could minimize or (exacerbate) how impactful a past failure is on your
Vicarious experiences are the experiences of others. Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment showed that humans may learn behaviors through observation. For example, they see a parent being aggressive toward a doll, and they are more likely to be aggressive toward the doll in the same manner.
As we observe others, we also tend to compare ourselves to the people we are observing. Forty years before Albert Bandura introduced the idea of self-efficacy to psychology, Leon Festinger first introduced his Social Comparison Theory. The theory outlines how we look at people similar to us to evaluate our own personality, status, and abilities.
So how does this relate to self-efficacy? Let’s say you are evaluating your abilities to succeed on the TV show Survivor. You watch a season and see someone of similar build and age to you winning a challenge. Another contestant looks more out-of-shape than you and is keeping up just fine. You think to yourself, “if they can do it, I can too.”
Have you ever been scared to do something, but felt that fear go away when a parent or a coach tells you, “you can do it!” Maybe you have used affirmations to reduce your anxiety before a big speech or game. These incidents illustrate how verbal persuasion can impact your self-efficacy. Verbal persuasion comes in the form of self-talk, encouragement from others, or speeches not even intended for us!
Physiological and affective states
In psychology, “affect” is a broad term relating to a person’s feelings or mood. Their physiology refers to how they are feeling physically. Mood and how we feel physically can have a significant impact on whether we believe we can accomplish a task.
Even if you are a regular runner, for example, a nasty hangover might seriously hinder your ability to believe you can run five miles on a certain morning. You may postpone the run to a later time or skip the run altogether. (Who could blame you?) The next night you go to a party and plan to run the next morning, you may adjust your drinking habits based on your priorities.
Feeling nauseous or in pain may have just as much of an impact as changes to your emotional state. A person who feels energized, motivated, and hopeful is probably more likely to attempt a five-mile run than someone who is depressed, unmotivated, or sad.
Examples of Self-Efficacy
- Jeanne wants to add more running to her routine, but she has to plan her runs around the weather. In the past, she had a hard time running in the heat and believes that she can only get a good workout when the temperature is mild and it’s sunny outside.
- After a great day of relaxing, repeating affirmations, and reading inspiring literature, Jacob feels confident in his ability to give a presentation in front of his class. On the way to class, however, he hits traffic, gets a text from an ex who he doesn’t want to hear from, and realizes he left his coffee at home. His mood changes, and he no longer believes that he can give the presentation.
- Bill is unsure of whether he can get on a boat after previous experiences getting seasick. He talks to his partner, who reassures him that the captain will have appropriate medication on board and they can move throughout the boat to find the best spot for Bill to sit and breathe. Bill feels comforted by his partner’s words and feels confident getting on the boat.
Can Self-Efficacy Change Over Time?
Knowing the four sources of self-efficacy, you can see how self-efficacy can change, for better or for worse, over time. Seeking out verbal persuasion or changing your affective state, for example, can impact whether you believe in your abilities to complete certain tasks.
Five Ways to Develop Self-Efficacy
Just Try It Out!
If you are thinking of a task that you have never completed before, you may draw on mastery experiences related to the task, but not mirroring the task itself. The best way to discover your abilities is to just go for it and see what you’re capable of doing! You might surprise yourself, or do exactly how you predicted you would do.
Do Your Research
The more you know about the task at hand, the easier it will be to see yourself completing it (or practice the skills required to complete it.) Research can include vicarious experiences or even verbal persuasion. As you watch another person talk about their experiences sending a v5 climbing route, for example, they may encourage climbers to try something out of their comfort zone or practice certain skills before attempting the route. The more time you spend researching the task, the more you can assure yourself that you’ve put in work and intention to complete it.
Surround Yourself With Positive People
The more positive affirmations and encouragement you hear, the more likely you will feel up to a task. You can hear more positive affirmations by spending time with people who encourage you. This means spending less time with people who discourage you.
Mindfulness is awareness without judgment. You can develop mindfulness through meditation, walking, or other simple practices. As you develop mindfulness, you may find that you can better control or tap into your affective state. You will be able to anticipate when your affective state will change and adjust your environment for the better. Protecting your affective state will help you stay “in the right mood” for evaluating your abilities and believing in your ability to achieve.
Practice Healthy Habits
Maintaining your physiological state has many benefits! If you get enough sleep, eat healthy, and stay active, you’ll find that your life improves in many ways. Your self-efficacy will develop and you will get a better sense of what you can do. There are so many reasons to get sleep, drink water, and stay healthy!