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Definition: self-efficacy from Dictionary of Psychological Testing, Assessment and Treatment

Belief in one’s own ability to succeed or to cope.

Summary Article: Self-Efficacy from The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology

Self-efficacy beliefs are people’s beliefs about their ability to produce desired outcomes through their own actions. These beliefs are among the most important determinants of the behaviors people choose to engage in and how much they persevere in their efforts in the face of obstacles and challenges. Therefore, they also are among the most important determinants of psychological well-being and adjustment. Although the term self-efficacy is of recent origin, interest in beliefs about personal control has a long history in psychology. Albert Bandura’s 1977 Psychological Review article “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavior Change” formalized the notion of perceived competence as self-efficacy, defined it clearly, and embedded it in a theory of how it develops and influences human behavior.

Self-efficacy beliefs can be distinguished from a number of related concepts. Self-efficacy beliefs are not beliefs about skill; they are beliefs about one’s ability to exercise one’s skills under certain conditions – especially under changing and challenging conditions. Self-efficacy beliefs are not predictions or intentions about behavior; they are concerned not with what one believes one will do but with what one believes one can do. Self-efficacy is not self-esteem, although self-efficacy beliefs in a given domain will contribute to self-esteem in direct proportion to the importance one places on that domain. Self-efficacy is not a motive, drive, or need for control. One can have a strong need for control in a particular domain, and still hold weak beliefs about one’s ability to perform effectively in that domain. Self-efficacy is not a personality trait. Although measures of general self-efficacy have been developed and are used frequently in research, they have not been as useful as specific self-efficacy measures in predicting how people will behave under specific conditions.

The Development of Self-Efficacy Beliefs

The early development of self-efficacy beliefs is influenced primarily by two interacting factors. The first is the development of the capacity for symbolic thought, particularly the capacity for understanding cause-and-effect relationships and the capacity for self-observation and self-reflection. These abilities begin developing in infancy and move from the infant’s perception of the causal relationship between events, to his or her understanding that actions produce results, to the recognition that he or she can be the origin of actions that affect their environments. As children’s understanding of language increases, so does their capacity for symbolic thought and, therefore, their capacity for self-awareness and a sense of personal agency.

Second, the development of self-efficacy beliefs is influenced by the responsiveness of environments to the infant’s or child’s attempts at manipulation and control. Environments that are responsive to the child’s actions facilitate the development of self-efficacy beliefs, whereas nonresponsive environments retard this development. The development of self-efficacy beliefs encourages exploration, which in turn enhances the infant’s beliefs about self-efficacy. The child’s social environment (especially parents) is usually the most important part of his or her context. Thus, children usually develop a sense of efficacy from engaging in actions that influence the behavior of other people, which then generalizes to the nonsocial environment. Parents can facilitate or hinder the development of strong self-efficacy beliefs by their responses to the infant’s or child’s actions and by encouraging and enabling the child to explore and master his or her environment.

Self-efficacy beliefs develop throughout the lifespan as people continually integrate information from five primary sources. The most powerful influences on self-efficacy beliefs are performance experiences, one’s own attempts to control one’s environment. Successful attempts at control that one attributes to one’s own efforts will strengthen self-efficacy beliefs for that behavior or domain. Self-efficacy beliefs also are influenced by vicarious experiences, or observations of the behavior of others and the consequences of those behaviors. People use these observations to form expectancies about their own behavior and its consequences. People can also influence their self-efficacy beliefs by imagining themselves or others behaving effectively or ineffectively in hypothetical situations. Such images may be derived from actual or vicarious experiences with situations similar to the one anticipated, or they may be induced by verbal persuasion, as when a psychotherapist guides a client through interventions such as systematic desensitization, a traditional behavioral therapy technique that relies on the person’s ability to imaging coping effectively with feared situations and objects. Self-efficacy beliefs also are influenced by verbal persuasion – what others say to a person about what they believe that person can or cannot do. The power of verbal persuasion to affect self-efficacy beliefs will be influenced by such factors as the expertness, trustworthiness, and attractiveness of the source. Physiological and emotional states influence self-efficacy when a person learns to associate poor performance or perceived failure with aversive physiological arousal and success with pleasant feeling states. When a person becomes aware of unpleasant physiological arousal, he or she is more likely to doubt his or her competence than if his or her physiological state is pleasant or neutral. Likewise, comfortable physiological sensations are likely to lead people to feel confident in their ability with the situation at hand.

The Measurement of Self-Efficacy Beliefs

As noted previously, self-efficacy is not a trait and should not be measured as such. Instead, self-efficacy measures should be specific to the domain of interest (e.g., social skills, exercise, dieting, safe sex, arithmetic skills). Within a given domain, self-efficacy beliefs can be measured at varying degrees of behavioral and situational specificity, depending on what one is trying to predict. Thus, the measurement of self-efficacy should be designed to capture the multifaceted nature of behavior and the context in which it occurs. Specifying behaviors and contexts improves the predictive power of self-efficacy measures, but such specificity can reach a point of diminishing returns if carried to far. Therefore, the researcher must “know the territory” and have a thorough understanding of the behavioral domain in question, including the types of abilities called upon and the range of situations in which they might be used.

The Influence of Self-Efficacy Beliefs

Self-efficacy beliefs are important in all aspects of human psychological functioning. Four domains are especially important: psychological adjustment; physical health; self-regulation; and psychotherapy.

Psychological Adjustment

Most philosophers and psychological theorists agree that a sense of control over our behavior, our environment, and our own thoughts and feelings is essential for happiness and a sense of psychological well-being. Feelings of loss of control are common among people who seek the help of psychotherapists and counselors. Self-efficacy beliefs play a major role in a number of common psychological problems. Low self-efficacy expectancies are an important feature of depression. Depressed people usually believe they are less capable than other people of behaving effectively in many important areas of life. Dysfunctional anxiety and avoidant behavior can be the direct result of low self-efficacy beliefs for managing threatening situations. Self-efficacy beliefs also play a powerful role in substance abuse problems and eating disorders. For each of these problems, enhancing self-efficacy beliefs for overcoming the problem and for implementing self-control strategies in specific challenging situations can contribute to the success of therapeutic interventions.

Physical Health

Self-efficacy beliefs influence health in two ways. First, they influence the adoption of healthy behaviors, the cessation of unhealthy behaviors, and the maintenance of behavioral changes in the face of challenge and difficulty. All of the major theories of health behavior, such as protection motivation theory, the health belief model, and the theory of reasoned action/planned behavior include self-efficacy as a key component. In addition, enhancing self-efficacy beliefs is a part of successful change and maintenance of virtually every behavior crucial to health, including exercise, diet, stress management, safe sex, smoking cessation, overcoming alcohol abuse, compliance with treatment and prevention regimens, and disease detection behaviors such as breast self-examinations.

Second, self-efficacy beliefs influence a number of biological processes which, in turn, influence health and disease. Self-efficacy beliefs affect the body’s physiological responses to stress, including the immune system. Lack of perceived control over environmental demands can increase susceptibility to infections and hasten the progression of disease. Self-efficacy beliefs also influence the activation of catecholamines, a family of neurotransmitters important to the management of stress and perceived threat, along with the endogenous painkillers referred to as endorphins.


Research on self-efficacy has added greatly to our understanding of how we guide our own behavior in the pursuit of desired goals. Self-efficacy beliefs influence self-regulation in several ways. First, they influence the goals we set. The stronger a person’s self-efficacy in a specific achievement domain, the loftier will be the goals that person sets in that domain. Second, they influence people’s choices of goal-directed activities, expenditure of effort, persistence in the face of challenge and obstacles, and reactions to perceived discrepancies between goals and current performance. Strong self-efficacy beliefs are associated with perseverance in the face of difficulties and setbacks. Perseverance usually produces desired results, and this success then strengthens self-efficacy beliefs.

Third, self-efficacy beliefs influence the efficiency and effectiveness of problem-solving and decision-making. When faced with complex decisions, people who have confidence in their ability to solve problems use their cognitive resources more effectively than people who doubt their cognitive skills. Such efficacy beliefs usually lead to better solutions and greater achievement. In the face of difficulty, people with strong self-efficacy beliefs are likely to remain task-diagnostic and continue to search for solutions to problems. People with weak self-efficacy beliefs, however, are likely to become self-diagnostic and reflect on their inadequacies. This diminishes their ability to evaluate and solve problems.


The term psychotherapy refers broadly to professionally guided interventions designed to enhance psychological well-being. Different psychological interventions, or different components of an intervention, may be equally effective because they equally enhance self-efficacy for crucial behavioral and cognitive skills. The success of psychological interventions can be enhanced by arranging experiences designed to strengthen self-efficacy beliefs for specific behaviors in specific problematic and challenging situations. Some basic strategies for enhancing self-efficacy beliefs are based on the five sources of self-efficacy previously noted.

Performance Experience

When people see themselves coping effectively with difficult situations, their sense of mastery is likely to be heightened. For example, the most effective interventions for phobias and fears involve gaining gradual experience with the feared object or situation during therapy sessions or between sessions as homework assignments. Recent advances in computer technology now allow for the use of virtual reality experiences in the treatment of phobias and fears. In cognitive treatments of depression, clients are provided structured guidance in arranging success experiences that will counteract low self-efficacy expectancies.

Vicarious Experience

Vicarious learning and imagination can be used to teach new skills and enhance self-efficacy for those skills. For example, modeling films and videotapes have been used successfully with people who have phobias. Research has shown that changes in self-efficacy beliefs for approaching feared objects and situations lead to adaptive behavioral changes. Common everyday (nonprofessional) examples of the use of vicarious experiences to enhance self-efficacy include advertisements for weight-loss and smoking cessation programs that feature testimonials from successful people. The clear message from these testimonials is that the listener or reader also can accomplish this difficult task. Formal and informal support groups – people sharing their personal experiences in overcoming a common adversity such as addiction, obesity, or illness – also provide forums for the enhancement of self-efficacy.

Imagined Experience

Imagining ourselves engaging in feared behaviors or overcoming difficulties can be used to enhance self-efficacy. For example, cognitive therapy of anxiety and fear problems often involves modifying visual images of danger and anxiety, including images of coping effectively with the feared situation. Systematic desensitization, noted previously, relies on the person’s ability to imaging coping effectively with a feared situation. Because fearful and depressive images are important components of anxiety and depression, various techniques have been developed to help clients modify and reduce these images and to replace them with more positive images.

Verbal Persuasion

Most formal psychological interventions rely strongly on verbal persuasion to enhance a client’s self-efficacy and encourage small risks that may lead to small successes. In cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapies the therapist engages the client in a discussion of the client’s dysfunctional beliefs, attitudes, and expectancies and helps the client see the irrationality and self-defeating nature of such beliefs. The therapist encourages the client to adopt new, more adaptive beliefs and to act on these new beliefs and expectancies. As a result, the client experiences the successes that can lead to more enduring changes in self-efficacy beliefs and adaptive behavior. People also rely daily on verbal persuasion as a self-efficacy strengthener by seeking the support of other people when attempting to lose weight, quit smoking, maintain an exercise program, or summon up the courage to confront a difficult boss or loved one.

Physiological and Emotional States

People usually feel more self-efficacious when they are calm than when they are aroused and distressed. Thus, strategies for controlling and reducing emotional arousal (specifically anxiety) while attempting new behaviors should enhance self-efficacy beliefs and increase the likelihood of successful implementation. Hypnosis, biofeedback, relaxation training, meditation, and medication are the most common strategies for reducing the physiological arousal typically associated with weak self-efficacy beliefs and poor performance.

Collective Efficacy

Accomplishing important goals in groups, organizations, and societies has always depended on the ability of individuals to identify the abilities of other individuals and to harness these abilities to accomplish common goals. This idea is captured in the notion of collective efficacy, the beliefs that people in a group hold about their ability to work together effectively to accomplish shared goals. Collective efficacy has been found to be important to a number of settings and groups. The more efficacious couples feel about their ability to accomplish important shared goals, the more satisfied they are with their relationships. The collective efficacy beliefs of an athletic team can be raised or lowered by giving them false information about ability and can influence its success in competitions. The collective efficacy beliefs of teachers can affect the academic achievement of school children. The effectiveness of self-managing work teams also seems to be related to collective efficacy beliefs. Collective efficacy beliefs also can be important in people’s attempts to create social and political change. Individual success and happiness depends to a large degree on the ability to cooperate, collaborate, negotiate, and otherwise live in harmony with other people. In addition, the ability of businesses, organizations, communities, and governments (local, state, and national) to achieve their goals will increasingly depend on their ability to coordinate their efforts, particularly because these goals often conflict. In a world in which communication across the globe is often faster than communication across the street, and in which cooperation and collaboration in commerce and government is becoming increasingly common and increasingly crucial, understanding collective efficacy beliefs will become increasingly important.

SEE ALSO: ▸ Bandura, Albert ▸ Self-regulation

James E. Maddux
George Mason University
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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