Self-efficacy and the construction of an optimistic self
The relationship of an optimistic self-concept to success turns out to be very real and can be encouraged in the young. This author identifies the sources of self- efficacy beliefs, considers how they affect four life processes, and provides strategies for helping youth improve their self-efficacy.
A teacher asks her student, "James, do you want to explain some of the great ironies leading to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?"
James squirms in his seat, trying to find a balance between belligerence and the humiliation of admitting his inability to understand the text, let alone the question. He does not find that balance. Instead he responds, "This class sucks and so does this school ! " James leaves school that day vowing to himself that he will never again be caught in a situation like that. He decides to quit school.
James’s inability to see any hope in an uncomfortable situation is typical of youth with low levels of perceived self-efficacy. Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people ’s beliefs about their capabilities, particularly about their ability to influence events that affect their lives. Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves, and behave.
A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal well-being in many ways. People with high confidence in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided. They set themselves challenging goals to which they are strongly committed. They heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure. They quickly recover their sense of efficacy after failures or setbacks. They attribute failure to insufficient effort or to deficient knowledge or skills — that is, to problems that can be corrected. They approach threatening situations with assurance that they can exercise control. Such an efficacious outlook produces personal accomplishments, reduces stress, and lowers vulnerability to depression.
In contrast, people who doubt their capabilities shy away from difficult tasks, which they tend to view as personal threats. They have low aspirations and weak commitment to the goals they choose to pursue. When faced with difficult tasks, they dwell on their personal deficiencies, on the obstacles they will encounter, and on all kinds of imagined adverse outcomes, instead of concentrating on how to perform successfully. They slacken their efforts and give up quickly in the face of difficulties. They are slow to recover their sense of efficacy following failure or setbacks. Because they view insufficient performance as a deficient aptitude — something that cannot be corrected — it does not require much failure for them to lose faith in their capabil ities. They easily fall victim to stress and depression.
Clearly, perceived self-efficacy is closely aligned with hope. People with strong senses of efficacy are people with a positive outlook, people for whom success is almost an assumption. But how can people’s beliefs about their efficacy be developed?
Sources of self-efficacy beliefs
There are four primary sources of self-efficacy beliefs: mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, social persuasion, and reduced stress response.
The most effective way of creating a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences —experiences in which mastery is achieved and success is experienced. Successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy. Failures undermine it, especially if failures occur before a sense of efficacy is firmly established. Mastery, of course, implies sustained hard work and the over- coming of obstacles. Not just any success will build the kind of confidence associated with efficacy. If people experience only easy successes, they come to expect quick results and are easily discouraged by failure. A resilient sense of efficacy requires experience in overcoming obstacles through prolonged effort. Some setbacks and difficulties in human pursuits serve a useful purpose in teaching that success usually requires sustained effort. After people become convinced they have what it takes to succeed, they persevere in the face of adversity and quickly rebound from setbacks. By sticking it out through tough times, they emerge from adversity stronger.
The second way of creating and strengthening perceptions of efficacy is through vicarious experiences — the observation of behavior modeled by people similar to oneself. Seeing others succeed through sustained effort can stimulate observers’ beliefs that they too might master comparable activities and experience success. By the same token, watching others fail despite high effort lowers observers’ judgments of their own efficacy and undermines their efforts. The impact of modeling on perceived self-efficacy is strongly influenced by perceived similarity to the models. The greater the assumed similarity, the more persuasive are the model’s successes and failures. If people see the models as very different from themselves their perceived self-efficacy is not much influenced by the models’ behavior and successes.
Modeling influences do more than provide a social standard against which to judge one ’s own capabilities. People seek models who possess competencies they themselves would like to have. Through their behavior and expressed ways of thinking, competent models transmit knowledge — they actually teach observers effective skills and strategies for managing situational demands. Those observers who are able to learn the modeled skills experience heightened perceptions of self-effcacy.
Persuasion is another way of strengthening people’s belief that they have what it takes to succeed. People who are persuaded verbally that they have the ability to master given activities are likely to make greater and more sustained efforts than if they harbor self-doubts and dwell on personal deficiencies when problems arise. To the extent that persuasive boosts can lead people to try hard enough to succeed, they promote development of skills and a sense of personal efficacy.
Successful efficacy builders do more than convey positive appraisals. In addition to raising people ’s beliefs in their own capabilities, effcacy builders structure situations for them in ways that bring success. They also avoid placing people in situations where they are likely to fail often. They measure success in terms of self-improvement rather than in terms of triumphs over others.
Physical and emotional states
Another way to positively influence perceptions of self-efficacy is to reduce people’s stress reactions and help them alter their negative emotional proclivities and misinterpretations of their physical states. People rely partly on their physical and emotional states in judging their capabilities. Those plagued by self-doubt tend to interpret their stress reactions and tension as signs of vulnerability to poor performance. In activities involving strength and stamina, such people judge their fatigue, aches, and pains as signs of physical disability. Mood also affects people ’s judgments of their personal efficacy. A positive mood enhances perceived self-efficacy, while a despondent mood diminishes it.
Note, however, that it is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important, but rather how they are perceived and interpreted. People who have a high sense of efficacy are likely to view their stress reactions as positive excitement, as energizing facilitators of performance, whereas those who are beset by doubts regard their tensions as negative and as weakening influences. Not surprisingly, physiological indicators of efficacy play an especially influential role in health functioning and in athletic and other physical activities.
But how do perceptions of self-efficacy exert their influence? Research has identified four processes through which such perceptions affect human functioning: cognitive, motivational, affective, and selection.
The effects of self-efficacy beliefs on cognitive processes take a variety of forms. Much human behavior, being purposive, is regulated by forethought — by planning toward valued goals. Personal goal-setting is influenced by appraisal of one’s perceived capabilities. The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the higher the goals people set for themselves and the firmer their commitment to them.
Most courses of action are initially organized in thought. People’s beliefs in their efficacy shape the types of possible scenarios they construct and rehearse. That is, what they can imagine is what they can achieve. Those who have a high sense of efficacy visualize success scenarios that provide positive guides and supports for performance. Those who doubt their efficacy tend to visualize failure scenarios and to dwell on the many things that can go wrong. lt is difficult to achieve much while fighting self-doubt.
It requires a strong sense of efficacy to remain task oriented in the face of pressing situational demands, failures, and set-backs that have significant repercussions. Indeed, when people are faced with the tasks of managing difficult environmental demands under taxing circumstances, those who doubt their own efficacy become more and more erratic in their analytic thinking, tending to lower their aspirations until the quality of their performance deteriorates. In contrast, those who maintain a resilient sense of efficacy set themselves challenging goals and use good analytic thinking, which pays off in performance accomplishments.
Most human motivation is a product of forethought. People form beliefs about what they can do. They anticipate likely outcomes of prospective actions. They set goals for themselves and plan courses of action designed to realize valued futures. There are three different forms of cognitive motivators around which theories have been built: causal attributions, outcome expectancies, and cognized goals. The corresponding theories are attribution theory, expectancy-value theory, and goal theory, respectively. Self-efficacy beliefs operate in each of these types of cognitive motivation.
Causal attributions/attribution theory. People who regard themselves as highly efficacious attribute their failures to insufficient effort; those who regard themselves as inefficacious attribute their failures to low ability. Causal attributions affect motivation, performance, and affective reactions mainly through beliefs of self-efficacy.
Outcome expectations/expectancy-value theory. In expectancy-value theory, motivation is regulated by the expectation that a given course of behavior will produce certain valued outcomes. But people act on their beliefs about what they can do, as well as on their beliefs about the likely outcomes of performance. The motivating influence of outcome expectancies is thus partly governed by self-beliefs of efficacy. There are countless attractive options people do not pursue because they judge they lack the capabilities for them. The predictiveness of expectancy-value theory, therefore, is enhanced by including the influence of perceived self-efficacy.
Cognized goals/goal theory. The capacity to direct oneself by setting goals and evaluating reaction to one ’s own attaimnents provides a major cognitive mechanism of motivation. A large body of evidence shows that explicit, challenging goals enhance and sustain motivation. Motivation based on goal setting involves a cognitive comparison process. By making self-satisfaction conditional on matching adopted goals, people give direction to their behavior and create incentives to persist in their efforts until they fulfill their goals. They seek satisfaction from reaching valued goals and interpret substandard performances not as deterrents but as incentives for more intense effort.
Self-efficacy beliefs contribute to motivation in several ways. They determine the goals people set for themselves, how much effort they expend, how long they persevere in the face of difficulties, and their resilience in the face of failure. When confronted with obstacles and failures, people who harbor doubts about their capabilities slacken their efforts or give up quickly. Those who have a strong belief in their capabilities exert greater effort when they fail to master the challenges. Strong perseverance is the key to their success.
People’s beliefs in their coping capabilities affect how much stress and depression they experience in threatening or difficult situations, as well as their level of motivation. Perceived efficacy in controlling stressors plays a central role in the arousal — or non-arousal — of anxiety. People who believe they can exercise control over threats do not conjure up disturbing thought patterns. But those who believe they cannot manage threats experience high anxiety arousal. They dwell on their coping deficiencies. They view many aspects of their environment as fraught with danger. They magnify the severity of possible threats and worry about things that rarely happen. Through such inefficacious thinking, they distress themselves and impair their level of functioning. Perceived self-efficacy in coping with stress regulates avoidance behavior as well as anxiety arousal. The stronger the sense of self-efficacy, the bolder people are in taking on taxing and threatening activities.
Anxiety arousal is affected not only by perceived coping efficacy but also by the person’s perceived ability to control disturbing thoughts. This perceived ability is a key factor in regulating thought-produced stress and depression. It is not the sheer frequency of disturbing thoughts, but the perceived inability to turn them off, that is the major source of distress. Perceived coping efficacy and thought-control efficacy operate jointly to reduce anxiety and avoidance behavior.
Also in the affective domain is the impact of perceived coping efficacy on health functioning. Stress has been implicated as an important contributing factor to many physical problems. The key to stress reaction, however, turns out to be controllability. It is not stress per se, but the perceived inability to manage stress, that is debilitating. Thus, exposure to stressors has no adverse biological effects on those with the ability to control them. But exposure to the same stressors without the ability to control them impairs the immune system. The impairment of immune function increases susceptibility to infection, contributes to the development of physical disorders, and accelerates the progression of disease.
The discussion so far has centered on efficacy-activated processes that enable people to create beneficial enviromnents and to exercise some control over the challenges they encounter day in and day out. But how do they exercise this control? Through the choices they make — their selection processes. Beliefs about personal efficacy can shape the course people ’s lives take by influencing the types of activities and environments people choose. People avoid activities and situations they believe exceed their coping capabilities. But they readily undertake challenging activities and select situations they judge themselves capable of handling. Through the choices they make, people cultivate different competencies, interests, and social networks that determine life courses. Any factor that influences choice can profoundly affect the direction of personal development. This is because the social influences operating in selected environments continue to promote certain competencies, values, and interests long after the initial choice has been made.
Career choice and development provide an example of the power of self-efficacy beliefs to affect the course of a person’s life. The higher the level of people’s perceived self-efficacy, the wider the range of career options they seriously consider, the greater their interest in them, the better they prepare themselves educationally, and the greater their success. Occupations, of course, structure a good part of people’s lives and provide them with a major source of personal identity. Perceptions of self-efficacy affect the very course of life, the definition of self.
Adaptive benefits of optimistic perceptions
There is a growing body of evidence that human accomplishments and well-being require an optimistic sense of personal efficacy. This is because ordinary social realities are strewn with impediments, adversities, setbacks, frustrations, and inequities. People must have a robust sense of personal efficacy to sustain the perseverance needed to succeed. Oddly, realism is not a blessing in perceiving self-efficacy. Realism, it turns out, is associated with pessimism. Faced with pursuits strewn with obstacles, realists either forsake them, abort their efforts prematurely when difficulties arise, or become cynical about the prospects of effecting significant changes.
A certain amount of self-mis-perception, it seems, may be a factor in optimism. When people err in their self-appraisal, they tend to overestimate their capabilities. But this is a benefit rather than a cognitive failing to be eradicated. If people’s efficacy beliefs always reflected only what they could do routinely, they would rarely fail, but neither would they set goals beyond their immediate reach or mount the extra effort needed to surpass their ordinary performances. People with a high sense of self-efficacy are people with positive delusions. They have the staying power to endure the obstacles and setbacks that characterize difficult undertakings.
Engendering efficacy in youth
One persuasive approach to helping youth develop the sense of self-efficacy is through the mastery experiences mentioned earlier. Social cognitive theory describes mastery experiences as the principal means of personality change. Guided mastery is a powerful vehicle for instilling a robust sense of coping efficacy in youth whose functioning is impaired by intense apprehension and self-protective reactions. Mastery experiences are structured in ways to build coping skills and instill beliefs that one can exercise control over potential threats. Youth with intractable fears, of course, are not about to do what they dread. One must, therefore, create an environment in which those incapacitated by fear can perform successfully despite themselves.
In the case of James, the schoolboy who would bolt rather than explain Shakespeare, the following mastery aids would be beneficial:
Model feared activities to show him how to cope with threats and to disconfirm his worst fears.
Break down coping tasks into subtasks of steps he can master easily.
Have a therapist perform feared activities with James to enable him to do things he would resist doing by himself .
Overcome his resistance by using graduated time. James will refuse threatening tasks if he fears he will have to endure stress for a long time. But he will probably risk such tasks for a short period. As his coping efficacy increases, extend the time he spends performing the activity.
When James’s functioning is fully recovered, the mastery aids will be withdrawn and a check will be made to verify that his coping successes stem from personal efficacy rather than from the aids themselves. Then a series of self-directed mastery experiences, designed to confirm these coping capabilities, will be arranged to strengthen and generalize J ames’s sense of coping efficacy. Once people develop a resilient sense of efficacy, they can withstand difficulties and adversities without adverse effects.
Changing the mind
Guided mastery treatment achieves widespread psychological changes in a relatively short time. It eliminates phobic behavior, anxiety, and biological stress reactions; creates positive attitudes; and eradicates fearful ruminations and nightmares. The apparently profound effect that achievement of coping efficacy has on dream activity is particularly striking evidence of generalized impact.
In fact, dreams are really the subject here: dreams of the self, dreams of the possible. After all, the successful, the venturesome, the sociable, the innovators, and the social reformers among us take optimistic views — they believe in their personal ability to exercise influence over events that affect their lives. Such beliefs, if not unrealistically exaggerated, foster well-being and human accomplishments.
Understanding theories of self-efficacy can help more of us foster well-being and human accomplishments in the children and youth we work with. Perhaps our application of these theories can help us prevent young people like James from dropping out of school.
This feature: Bandura, A. (2000). Self-efficacy and the construction of an optimistic self. Reaching Today's Youth, 4, 4. pp. 18-22.