Self Efficacy and Why Believing in Yourself Matters

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Self-efficacy is a person's belief in their ability to complete a task or achieve a goal. It encompasses a person's confidence in themselves to control their behavior, exert an influence over their environment, and stay motivated in the pursuit of their goal. People can have self-efficacy in different situations and domains, such as school, work, relationships, and other important areas.

When facing a challenge, do you feel like you can rise up and accomplish your goal, or do you give up in defeat? Are you like the little train engine from the classic children's book ("I think I can, I think I can!"), or do you doubt your own abilities to rise up and overcome the difficulties that life throws your way? If you tend to keep going in the face of obstacles, you probably have a high degree of self-efficacy.

What Is Self-Efficacy?

Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a particular situation. Psychologist Albert Bandura described these beliefs as determinants of how people think, behave, and feel.

Self-efficacy is important because it plays a role in how you feel about yourself and whether or not you successfully achieve your goals in life. The concept of self-efficacy is central to Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory, which emphasizes the role of observational learning, social experience, and reciprocal determinism in personality development.

According to Bandura, self-efficacy is part of the self-system comprised of a person’s attitudes, abilities, and cognitive skills. This system plays a major role in how we perceive and respond to different situations. Self-efficacy is an essential part of this self-system.

Self-Efficacy Basics

According to Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is "the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations." Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a particular situation. Such beliefs play a role in determining how people think, behave, and feel.

Since Bandura published his seminal 1977 paper, "Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change," the subject has become one of the most studied topics in psychology. Why has self-efficacy become such an important topic among psychologists and educators?

As Bandura and other researchers have demonstrated, self-efficacy can impact everything from psychological states to behavior to motivation. Self-efficacy determines what goals we pursue, how we accomplish those goals, and how we reflect upon our own performance.

Our belief in our own ability to succeed plays a role in how we think, how we act, and how we feel about our place in the world.

The Role of Self-Efficacy

Virtually all people can identify goals they want to accomplish, things they would like to change, and things they would like to achieve. However, most people also realize that putting these plans into action is not quite so simple. Bandura and others have found that an individual’s self-efficacy plays a major role in how goals, tasks, and challenges are approached.

People with a strong sense of self-efficacy:

  • Develop deeper interest in the activities in which they participate
  • Form a stronger sense of commitment to their interests and activities
  • Recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments
  • View challenging problems as tasks to be mastered

People with a weak sense of self-efficacy:

  • Avoid challenging tasks
  • Believe that difficult tasks and situations are beyond their capabilities
  • Focus on personal failings and negative outcomes
  • Quickly lose confidence in personal abilities

Self-Efficacy vs. Self-Esteem

Self-efficacy is sometimes confused with self-esteem, but there are important distinctions between the two. What is the difference between self-efficacy and self-esteem? Self-efficacy refers to how you feel about your ability to succeed in different situations, while self-esteem refers to your respect for your own value and worth.

Research suggests that self-efficacy predicts self-esteem. In other words, people with high self-efficacy also tend to have high self-esteem and vice versa.

How Does Self-Efficacy Develop?

We begin to form our sense of self-efficacy in early childhood by dealing with various experiences, tasks, and situations. However, the growth of self-efficacy does not end during youth but continues to evolve throughout life as people acquire new skills, experiences, and understanding.

Bandura identified four major sources of self-efficacy. The four ways that self-efficacy is achieved are mastery experiences, social modeling, social persuasion, and psychological responses.

Mastery Experiences

"The most effective way of developing a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences," Bandura explained. Performing a task successfully strengthens our sense of self-efficacy. However, failing to adequately deal with a task or challenge can undermine and weaken self-efficacy.

Social Modeling

Witnessing other people successfully completing a task is another important source of self-efficacy. According to Bandura, "Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers' beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities to succeed."

Social Persuasion

Bandura also asserted that people could be persuaded to believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed. Consider a time when someone said something positive and encouraging that helped you achieve a goal. Getting verbal encouragement from others helps people overcome self-doubt and instead focus on giving their best effort to the task at hand.

Psychological Responses

Our own responses and emotional reactions to situations also play an important role in self-efficacy. Moods, emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels can all impact how a person feels about their personal abilities in a particular situation. A person who becomes extremely nervous before speaking in public may develop a weak sense of self-efficacy in these situations.

However, Bandura also notes "it is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted."

By learning how to minimize stress and elevate mood when facing difficult or challenging tasks, people can improve their sense of self-efficacy.

Examples of High Self-Efficacy

So what exactly does high self-efficacy look like? You can probably think of some examples from your own life including areas where you feel a great deal of efficacy. People may possess a general sense of self-efficacy or in a specific domain where they believe they can do well such as school, work, friendships, parenting, sports, hobbies, and other areas.

Some examples of strong self-efficacy include:

  • A person struggling to manage a chronic illness feels confident that they can get back on track and improve their health by working hard and following their doctor's recommendations.
  • A student who feels confident that they will be able to learn the information and do well on a test.
  • Someone who has just accepted a job position in a role they have never performed before but feels that they have the ability to learn and perform the job well.

Self-efficacy can play an important role in health psychology and how people manage their health, nutrition, and illness. For example, having a strong sense of self-efficacy can help people who are trying to quit smoking stick to their goals.

Maintaining a weight loss plan, managing chronic pain, giving up alcohol, sticking to an exercise schedule, and following an eating plan can all be influenced by a person's levels of self-efficacy.

Research has also shown that when teachers have high self-efficacy, it has a positive impact on academic outcomes, including student motivation and achievement.

Bandura suggests that self-efficacy can benefit a person's sense of well-being in a number of ways. For instance, they remain optimistic and confident in their abilities, even when things become difficult.

Because individuals with high self-efficacy look at difficulties as challenges rather than threats, they tend to be more intrinsically interested in the tasks they pursue. Difficulty and failure don't mean defeat; instead, these individuals redouble their efforts and look for new ways to overcome.

Issues With Low Self-Efficacy

People who are low in self-efficacy tend to see difficult tasks as threats they should avoid. Because of this, they also tend to avoid setting goals and have low levels of commitment to the ones they do make.

When setbacks happen, they tend to give up quickly. Because they don't have much confidence in their ability to achieve, they are more likely to experience feelings of failure and depression. Stressful situations can also be very hard to deal with and those with low self-efficacy are less resilient and less likely to bounce back.

Learned helplessness is the opposite of self-efficacy. It can occur when people feel they have no power to control what happens in a situation. Instead of looking for opportunities to change the outcome, they give up and behave passively.

Evaluating Self-Efficacy Strength

For a quick, informal assessment of your own self-efficacy levels, consider the following questions:

  • Do you feel like you can handle problems if you are willing to work hard?
  • Are you confident in your ability to achieve your goals?
  • Do you feel like you can manage unexpected events that come up?
  • Are you able to bounce back fairly quickly after stressful events?
  • Do you feel like you can come up with solutions when you are facing a problem?
  • Do you keep trying even when things seem difficult?
  • Are you good at staying calm even in the face of chaos?
  • Do you perform well even under pressure?
  • Do you tend to focus on your progress rather than getting overwhelmed by all you still have to do?
  • Do you believe that hard work will eventually pay off?

If you can answer yes to many or most of these questions, then chances are good that you have a fairly strong sense of self-efficacy. If you feel like your self-efficacy could use a boost, consider some of the following strategies for improving your sense of efficacy.

Building Self-Efficacy

Fortunately, self-efficacy is a psychological skill that you can foster and strengthen. Start by looking for ways to incorporate Bandura's sources of self-efficacy into your own life. Some ways that self-efficacy can be achieved include acknowledging your success, observing your mentors, getting positive feedback, and practicing positive self-talk.

Celebrate Your Success

Mastery experiences play a critical role in the establishment of self-efficacy. Bandura actually identified this as the single most effective way to create a strong sense of self-belief.

When you succeed at something, you are able to build a powerful belief in your ability. Failure, on the other hand, can undermine these feelings, particularly if you are still in the early phases of building a sense of personal efficacy.

The ideal sorts of successes, however, are not necessarily those that come easily. If you experience a lot of easy success, you may find yourself giving up more readily when you finally do encounter failure. So work on setting goals that are achievable, but not necessarily easy. They will take work and perseverance, but you will emerge with a stronger belief in your own abilities once you achieve them.

Observe Others

Bandura also identified vicarious experiences obtained through peer modeling as another important means of establishing and strengthening self-efficacy. Seeing others putting in effort and succeeding, as a result, can increase your belief in your own ability to succeed.

One factor that plays a key role in the effectiveness of this approach is how similar the model is to yourself. The more alike you feel you are, the more likely it is that your observations will increase your sense of self-efficacy.

Seek Positive Affirmations

Hearing positive feedback from others can also help improve your sense of self-efficacy. By that same token, try to avoid asking for feedback from people who you know are more likely to have a negative or critical view of your performance.

For example, your doctor telling you that you are doing a good job sticking to your diet plan can be encouraging. Feedback from friends, mentors, health practitioners, and people who you respect can help you feel greater confidence in your own abilities.

Positive social feedback can be helpful for strengthening your already existing sense of efficacy, but negative comments can often have a powerful undermining effect. Bandura suggested that social feedback alone is not enough to build your self-belief, but it can be a useful tool when you need a little extra encouragement.

Pay Attention to Your Thoughts and Emotions

If you find yourself getting stressed out or nervous before a challenging event, you might feel less sure of your ability to cope with the task at hand.

Another way to boost your self-efficacy is to look for ways to manage your thoughts and emotions about what you are trying to accomplish.

Do you feel anxious? Looking for ways to ease your stress levels can help you feel more confident in your capabilities. Do you find yourself dwelling on negative thoughts? Look for ways to replace negativity with positive self-talk that promotes self-belief.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares strategies that can help you learn to truly believe in yourself, featuring IT Cosmetics founder Jamie Kern Lima.

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A Word From Verywell

There are a number of different scales that are used to evaluate levels of self-efficacy including the General Self-Efficacy Scale (GSE) and the Self-Efficacy Questionnaire.

Developing a strong sense of self-efficacy can play an important role in almost every aspect of your life. Life is full of challenges and high levels of self-efficacy can help you better deal with these difficulties more effectively. Your belief in your abilities can predict how motivated you feel, how you feel about yourself, and the amount of effort you put into achieving your goals.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Hajloo N. Relationships between self-efficacy, self-esteem and procrastination in undergraduate psychology students. Iran J Psychiatry Behav Sci. 2014;8(3):42-9. PMID: 25780374; PMCID: PMC4359724.

  4. Barni D, Danioni F, Benevene P. Teachers' self-efficacy: The role of personal values and motivations for teaching. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1645. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01645

  5. Maier SF, Seligman ME. Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neurosciencePsychol Rev. 2016;123(4):349-367. doi:10.1037/rev0000033

  6. Romppel M, Herrmann-Lingen C, Wachter R, et al. A short form of the General Self-Efficacy Scale (GSE-6): Development, psychometric properties and validity in an intercultural non-clinical sample and a sample of patients at risk for heart failure. Psychosoc Med. 2013;10:Doc01. doi:10.3205/psm000091

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Additional Reading
  • Bandura A. Exercise of personal agency through the self-efficacy mechanisms. In: Schwarzer R, ed. Self-efficacy: Thought Control of Action. Hemisphere: Taylor & Francis.

  • Bandura A. Self-efficacy. In: Ramachaudran VS, ed. Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, 4. Academic Press.

  • Turk DC. Psychological aspects of chronic pain. In: Benzon HT, Rathmell JP, Wu CL, et al., eds. Practical Management of Pain (Fifth Edition). Elsevier.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.