- Self-efficacy is the confidence we have in our abilities in specific life domains.
- Finely-grained self-efficacy beliefs are more useful in predicting outcomes than global self-confidence measures.
- Self-efficacy is a key ingredient of self-regulation and achieving our goals.
Years ago, right before starting on a big new project, I bought a framed note that spelled with golden letters:
She believed she could so she did.
I didn’t know who she was and what she did, but somehow, the words offered encouragement for my own undertaking.
The contract that humans draft with their loftiest dreams is surprisingly straightforward. Yes, we need skills to accomplish our goals. Yes, we need effort, strategy, resources, creativity, character, and even luck. But before we set the world in motion, we need the blessing of an inner ally, who, whether with a coy wink or a full-blown orchestra, makes us believe that we can.
This confidence in our abilities in specific life domains is known as self-efficacy. After studying self-efficacy for decades, psychologist James Maddux concluded that believing that we can accomplish what we want to accomplish is one of the most important ingredients for success. Indeed, countless research studies have shown that having high self-efficacy can help us pursue our goals, cope effectively with stress, engage in health-promoting behaviors, and have better psychological well-being.
Why do our thoughts and convictions have such a consequential hold on us? Is it the courage they impart to dream in the first place? Is it the resolve they extend when we stumble? Or is it because when we believe in ourselves, we can “risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit,” as poet E.E. Cummings writes.
Here are 8 insights from Maddux on the key role self-efficacy plays in our lives.
Self-efficacy can be more adaptive than self-confidence
Traditionally, psychologists have defined and measured self-confidence as a global construct that is consistent over time and across situations. It’s almost like a personality trait that people tend to have to varying degrees. The trouble with thinking of ourselves in global terms, such as having high or low self-confidence, is that it’s very easy to mis-predict outcomes.
Research shows that when it comes to our ability to predict behavior, situation-specific measures (i.e., self-efficacy beliefs) outperform global measures such as self-confidence. Thus, if you are considering setting a new goal, you’ll be better off breaking down your general self-confidence into components and thinking about your abilities in various specific situations. This is particularly important for people with low self-confidence, which can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, in cognitive behavioral therapy, the client who complains of low self-confidence is invited to explore some areas in life where they actually do well. This exercise can help individuals think about their particular competencies in various situations that they feel good about and move away from self-defeating thinking patterns.
Self-efficacy is a key ingredient of self-regulation
Self-regulation refers to the way we guide our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in the pursuit of our goals, desired outcomes, and values. It involves using our past experiences and knowledge about our skills as reference points to develop expectancies about future events and states. Consider self-regulation as a circular process where complex networks, factors, and predictions interact with each other and unfold over time.
Being a good self-regulator is an acquirable skill that includes learning how to generate better self-efficacy beliefs, setting and pursuing effective goals, incorporating feedback, and having adaptive self-evaluations of performance. Self-regulatory skills (as well as the belief that one is a good self-regulator) is fundamental for psychological well-being because they can usher a sense of agency over one’s life.
Self-efficacy is not wishful thinking or a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude
Self-efficacy is best viewed in terms of having confidence in your ability to apply your skills in particular situations. It is a much more nuanced concept than a blind belief of “I believe I can do it, and therefore I will succeed.” Notably, it entails having a clear understanding of your skills. Skills and beliefs about skills usually go hand-in-hand. This is why overconfidence without actual preparation (or lack of skills) can set people up for failure.
Self-efficacy can help in challenging and uncertain times
A powerful source of self-efficacy is actual performance—things you’ve done well in life. Often, when people encounter what appears to be a new problem, they see it as being entirely different from what they have experienced before. That’s rarely the case. Any challenge, if you live long enough, will have some similarity to other challenges you’ve faced and overcome before. If you stop and think about the ways in which a current challenge is similar to other challenges you successfully dealt with in the past, you can draw upon your experience and boost your sense of self-efficacy for managing this “unprecedented” circumstance. It can also attenuate the fear of uncertainty and of encountering something you have never encountered before.
Even the pandemic had elements that were not entirely new to us. Everyone, for example, has had times in their life when they felt isolated—perhaps they were separated from loved ones or felt alone in a foreign place. When we break things down to their components, most things can be considered a matter of degree of variance, as opposed to being a whole different kind of experience. This insight can help us deal with our circumstances more effectively, however uncertain and ambiguous they may appear.
Self-efficacy is important for resiliency
Resilience is often defined as the ability to bounce back from adversity and recover our equilibrium when we’ve been caught off balance. Resilience comes into play when we encounter barriers in our pursuit of desired goals. Research suggests that when facing a challenge, low-efficacy individuals might self-reflect in negative ways (“I knew I couldn’t do this…”) or disengage, while high-efficacy individuals will have more confidence in their abilities to find solutions to their problems, and thus be more resilient. A growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) promotes resilience and an acquirable view of skills, thus providing a better foundation for developing self-efficacy beliefs.
Experience fosters self-efficacy
What helps most in gaining self-efficacy is experience—trying something new and working at it, usually by breaking down goals and skills into manageable pieces and practicing them separately, again and again. When we think of a big goal simply as a series of small goals one after the other, it can give us the courage to dive in. Over time, as people acquire a sense of mastery over various skills, they will also accumulate self-efficacy beliefs. Once you realize the principle of these learnable self-regulatory skills, you can apply them to different situations.
Believe in yourself, but let your actions speak for you
It’s difficult to accomplish great things without believing in oneself. However, watch out for people who are constantly telling others how good they are at things. I would argue that a person who truly believes they are good at something is not going to feel the need to broadcast it. They will let their actions speak for them. In fact, someone who is constantly boasting about their greatness is probably trying to give themselves a pep talk, because their self-efficacy is not high after all.
Advice from a self-efficacy researcher for leading a happier life
For me, it goes back to trying not to think of ourselves in global, all-or-nothing terms or even fixed personality traits and aptitudes (“I’m not good at math—that’s just the way I am.”) Instead, it could be more helpful to see ourselves as complex individuals, with different skills and abilities that are not fixed and pre-determined, but rather are subject to change and growth.
Success, whichever way you define it, includes becoming better self-regulators by continuously honing our skills and engaging them in the right way. If people pay attention to the anatomy of their successes, they will likely realize that the skills they use to accomplish their goals can be generalized to accomplishing other goals. This is how self-efficacy beliefs are formed and a growth mindset is established.
Many thanks to James Maddux for his time and insights. Maddux is University Professor Emeritus at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at GMU’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.
Maddux, J.E., & Kleiman, E.M. (2020). Self-Efficacy. The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 443.
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