Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University
Self-efficacy is one of those terms we hear now and then but most people have a difficult time defining it. So, we can define self-efficacy as your perception of your ability to organize, perform, and accomplish a given behavior. For example, say you want to get a particular certification in your profession. Your self-efficacy reflects your belief (not your intention) of whether you can actually achieve that goal. If you believe that you can accomplish this goal then you would research relevant certification programs, work out the financial and time requirements, set up a study schedule and begin the classes. We would say your self-efficacy is high because you act on your intentions. In contrast, if you say you want the certification but chronically procrastinate or make excuses as to why you can’t start, we would say your self-efficacy if low.
How self-efficacy is applied to life
Self-efficacy beliefs form the foundation for human motivation, well-being, and personal accomplishment. This is because unless people believe that their actions can produce the outcomes they desire, they have little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties. This touches virtually every aspect of our lives: whether we approach a task with optimism or pessimism, how we face adversity, our vulnerability to stress and depression, and the life choices we make.
Your level of motivation toward a particular action is based more on what you believe than on what is objectively true. This is why many talented people are haunted by self-doubts. Others can see tremendous ability in people who have great potential in sports, academics, the arts, business, etc. but they don’t see it in themselves so they underperform because they don’t believe they are capable of more.
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Self-efficacy beliefs also determine how well knowledge and skills are learned in the first place. If the person doesn’t perceive themselves as capable of learning or meeting a particular goal, such as getting a certification in their profession or getting that undergraduate or graduate degree, they may not even try.
Many researchers consider the development of personal self-efficacy a necessary trait for behavioral change to occur. This is especially true for the more difficult types of change such as breaking addictive patterns. People are generally not expected to engage in a behavior, or even to form intentions to engage in a behavior, unless they believe that they have the necessary skills and abilities to perform the behavior.
How Self-Efficacy Beliefs Are Created
1. Perceptions of one’s previous performance and mastery of tasks/activities.
As we perform tasks we interpret the results and gradually develop beliefs about our capabilities to do similar and dissimilar tasks. Those interpreted as successful raise self-efficacy, those interpreted as failures, lower it. This is how children master various tasks as they grow. Through the process of trial and error, if they perceive their efforts as merely practicing or playing, they are likely to keep trying. If they interpret their efforts as “failure” then they are likely to stop and only focus on the task they know how to do well.
As adults we are continually building on our perceptions of past accomplishments and making decisions on what to try and what not to. We tend to select tasks that we feel competent to accomplish. Unless we believe we will succeed, there is little incentive to try. Risk-taking or trying something new enables us to expand our perception of what we are capable of, but it also invites failure and the emotions that accompany failure.
2. Vicarious experiences of observing others perform tasks.
Not as powerful as perceptions of self-mastery, but this greatly influences us when we observe a behavior of another person when we have little prior experience with a task. This is particularly potent when the observer perceives similar attributes in the person performing the act. For example, a boy observes his long-time friend begin to excel in athletics and wonders if he could do the same. He sees someone that inspires him. This raises his self-efficacy to at least give it a try. He may say to himself, “If he can do it, so can I.” It could also work the opposite way if the observed act is a failure. The self-talk here may be: “If he can’t do it, then I won’t be able to either.”
3. Social persuasions given by other people.
These persuasions are the verbal judgments others give about one’s performance or abilities. These play an important role in the development of one’s self-beliefs. This is especially true in children.
A child must master many tasks. How that learning process occurs is vital to their self-efficacy. If learning new tasks occurs in a nurturing environment where practice is emphasized without associating it with failure, then the child learns resilience. If shame and criticism are a regular part of that learning environment, the child will likely take fewer risks and focus only on what they have learned to do well in order to minimize the criticism.
Positive persuasions work to encourage and empower, while negative persuasions can work to defeat and weaken self-efficacy beliefs. Negative comments have far greater potential to influence than positive. These positive persuasions must be rooted in actual accomplishments and not just hollow praise or encouragement.
4. People gauge their confidence by the emotional state they experience as they contemplate an action.
Moods such as anxiety, stress, arousal, depression, etc. provide cues to the anticipated success or failure of the outcome. If a person experiences negative thoughts and fears about their capabilities, this can trigger additional stress, fear and anxiety that serve to ensure the inadequate performance they fear and can lower self-efficacy.
Raising your self-efficacy starts with taking an inventory of what you say you want to accomplish in your life and then assessing how well you follow through on those intentions. If you see a pattern of good intentions that don’t get much traction, then break the task down into smaller pieces so that each step is more achievable. The accomplishment of one piece then creates intrinsic motivation for accomplishing the next piece, and so on. This is the best way to gradually raise your self-efficacy and see movement toward improving your life.
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