Do you think you can find the motivation and perseverance to achieve a goal if you are not convinced you can? According to the self-efficacy theory of the eminent Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura, pioneer of the social-cognitivist movement, if you have little confidence in your abilities, your chances of achieving your goals are slim. This is because a sense of self-efficacy is a central self-management mechanism inherent to our motivation, accomplishment and well-being. Bandura’s theory is used in psychotherapy and many other fields, including education. Let’s take a closer look at what this feeling is, how it fits into Bandura’s work, and why it is more relevant than ever.
The basis of social-cognitive theory
Albert Bandura, one of the major figures in 20th-century psychology, began to focus on the feeling of personal efficacy, also known as self-efficacy, in the late 1970s. This notion is at the heart of his social-cognitive theory, which explains human development and functioning through continuous and reciprocal interactions between personal, behavioural and environmental (or contextual) factors. Initially called “social learning theory,” the social-cognitive theory developed by Bandura marks a major turning point in psychology. At once explanatory, predictive and operational, it went beyond the dominant theories of the time, which were structuralism, psychoanalysis and behaviourism, while incorporating certain aspects of them. “Bandura produced one of the only ‘encompassing’ theories that survive at the beginning of the 21st century,” explains Philippe Carré, professor of education, adding that the eminent psychologist knew how to “reformulate, to synthesize better, old questions such as motivation, learning or depression, and to articulate them in a global theory that is authentically dialectical of the individual and the social.” For Bandura, the social dimension of the human being is, in fact, inseparable from his individual dimension, and this is why in his model we are, as social subjects, “both” producers and products of our environment.
The two other notions that are, along with the feeling of personal effectiveness, at the basis of Bandura’s flagship theory are social modelling and self-regulation. While behaviourists see learning primarily as the result of trial and error, Bandura argues from his early years as an academic that learning is more likely to be rooted in human cultures and that it is through social modelling, also known as “vicarious” experience, that the most sophisticated skills and knowledge, whether manual, behavioural, social, intellectual or other, are transmitted. Social modelling is a form of learning by observing others that goes far beyond mere imitation. This is because it implies that the observing subject grasps rules implicit in the observed subject’s behaviour to produce new patterns of behaviour that will be similar to, but go beyond, them — in the sense that they will be interpreted and used in a personal way by the learning subject. Thus, even creative acts involve modelling. Without going into all the complexity of the social modelling process, let us mention that Bandura identified that four operations must be mobilized for it to take place: attention, memorization, reproduction and motivation.
The notion of self-regulation will become that of human “agentivity” — referring to the idea that the individual is an active agent of his or her life — and the sense of self-efficacy will be the key.
As for the notion of self-regulation, it assumes that human beings can observe themselves, self-assess, change, and learn to achieve their own goals. As social learners, we do not simply reproduce what our models do but are capable, to some extent, of predicting and actively intervening in our actions and motivation. As Bandura develops his theory, the notion of self-regulation will become that of human “agentivity” — referring to the idea that the individual is an active agent of his or her life — and the sense of self-efficacy will be key. It should be noted that the use of our potential for agentivity and self-efficacy does not always lead to a positive outcome for the individual, as Stephen Scott Brewer explains in Meet Albert Bandura: the man and the scholar: “Our analysis of this ‘agentic’ capacity would be quite incomplete if we left the reader with the impression that, in all circumstances, there would be a positive correlation between increasing one’s capacity to intervene in one’s life and improving the quality of that life. Bandura is explicit about this when he states that the feeling of self-efficacy does not emerge in the world with a predetermined value system. While almost everyone tries to influence his or her own future in a more or less systematic way, the human ability to control may be a natural capacity whose record in terms of impact on quality of life is at best mixed. […] The key point we make is that, although a defining characteristic of human agentivity is the possibility of being the source of acts of various purposes, this agentivity can be used for good or bad and can produce intended or unintended consequences.”
A defining feeling
The sense of personal effectiveness is derived from Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy, according to which individuals develop and regulate beliefs (or convictions) about their abilities to make actions or events happen. Also called self-efficacy or contextual or situational confidence, feelings of self-efficacy are “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” (Bandura, 1986). According to Bandura, of all our self-reflective capacities that govern our behaviours, emotions, and motivations, the sense of self-efficacy is the most powerful vector. And this feeling is nothing less for the father of social cognitivism than the foundation of our motivation, our achievements and our well-being.
According to Bandura, of all our self-reflective capacities that govern our behaviours, emotions and motivations, the sense of self-efficacy is the most powerful vector.
Numerous studies have validated the central premise of self-efficacy theory, which its author summarizes as follows: “Unless people believe that they can produce desired effects by their actions, they have little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties.” (Bandura, 1997). The feeling of personal efficacy always concerns personal judgments specific to a distinct category of tasks or operations, for example, being good at drawing; it would therefore be inappropriate to generalize a feeling of efficacy in drawing into a feeling of artistic efficacy. Similarly, a study of learners (Bong, 1999) found that as learners developed expertise in a subject, their judgments tended to become more refined about it, making them better able to determine whether or not they actually had the skills to perform a task similar to the one they had mastered.
Sense of self-efficacy always refers to personal judgments specific to a particular category of task or operation, such as being good at drawing.
Despite the fact that the sense of self-efficacy is “specific,” it can, under certain conditions, spillover from one activity to another, as Bandura explains: “There are several conditions under which some degree of ‘transfer’ of self-efficacy occurs. First, some transfer can occur when the different activities in question are governed by similar sets of sub-skills. For example, a senior executive may have comparable confidence in his or her ability to manage a business and a fundraiser for the city in which he or she lives because both activities, despite their differences, involve the same organizational and problem-solving skills. In this way, ‘generality’ is achieved.”
Finally, the sense of self-efficacy should also not be confused with Deci and Ryan’s (1985) concept of self-determination, whose theory distinguishes between intrinsic and extrinsic human motivation and argues that the individual is proactive, future-oriented and driven by three basic needs: autonomy, competence and social belonging. Unlike Deci and Ryan, Bandura does not believe that human beings come into the world with the need for self-determination, and he points out that studies have contradicted the idea held by his two colleagues that extrinsic rewards reduce the will to self-determination. “The basic problem I see with Deci and Ryan’s theory is that the need for self-determination is rooted in the set of behaviours it is supposed to motivate, with all the problems of conceptual circularity that this entails,” explains Bandura, adding that for him a psychological theory should have social utility, in other words, concrete applications, something that the theory of self-determination still does not have.
A concept with multiple applications
Our beliefs about our effectiveness affect almost every facet of our lives, both personally and professionally; they influence how we think, feel, motivate, behave, make choices, face adversity and conduct our lives in general. It is not surprising that this notion is used in various fields: from psychotherapy to sports, the workplace and education. And despite the individualistic connotation that its name may have, the feeling of efficacy or self-efficacy can also be transposed to the collective, as Philippe Carré summarizes in the issue of Bandura: une psychologie pour le XXIe siècle? of the journal Savoirs: “Self-efficacy is by no means an individualistic notion: Bandura studies the collective forms of the feeling of efficacy, through its manifestations in the political, social, and organizational fields, as well as in its intercultural variations. Collaboration is analyzed through the beliefs shared in groups about their collective capacities and the goals they can achieve together.”
Since the human being is, according to Bandera, never cut off from its social dimension, the collective can also, according to this logic, reinforce the self-efficacy of the individuals who are part of it. Thus, according to the psychologist, “social systems that maintain people’s skills, provide them with useful resources and leave a lot of room for their self-direction, give them more chances to achieve what they themselves want to become” (Bandura, 1986). If we transpose this idea to the field of education, the social system that Bandura speaks of can be embodied in the educational system, the teaching institution or the classroom.
Self-direction is another concept that Bandura incorporated into his social-cognitive theory. It refers to the capacity for psychological control that the individual exercises over his or her goals, motivation and actions when learning on his or her own, but also, more broadly, in any activity that enables him or her to evolve. It is first and foremost our capacity to learn and change that determines our potential for self-direction. Based in part on his own experience as a child attending a typical country school of his time, Bandura became convinced early on that “the content of most textbooks is perishable, but that the resources of self-direction are useful throughout life. Indeed, he believes that at the beginning of the 21st century, self-directed education is more relevant than ever: “Educational systems must shift their focus from simply transmitting information to training students to be lifelong learners themselves […] Self-directed education is vital today for a productive and innovative society” (Bandura, 2002).
A strong sense of self-efficacy is associated with the ability to set higher goals, make better choices to achieve one’s objectives, invest more effort, persevere more, view difficult tasks as challenges, be more resilient, and recover more easily from failure.
The concepts of potential and control are the basis of self-efficacy. A strong sense of self-efficacy is associated with the ability to set higher goals, make better choices to achieve one’s objectives, invest more effort, persevere more, view difficult tasks as challenges, be more resilient, and recover more easily from failure. People who have developed high self-efficacy are also generally more positive, they have a more favorable perception of themselves, a more satisfying social life and are less affected by stress, anxiety and depression. For those who frequently experience low self-efficacy, the opposite scenarios tend to occur.
The four sources of self-efficacy
One of the most interesting findings of self-efficacy studies is that success is not only based on our “objective” skills and competencies but also on our own beliefs in our ability to succeed. As Jacques Lecomte explains in his article on the applications of this sentiment in the issue Autour de l’œuvre d’Albert Bandura of the journal Savoirs: “Different people with identical abilities, or the same person in different circumstances, can therefore perform poorly, well, or remarkably well, depending on variations in their self-efficacy beliefs. Certainly, initial skill level influences performance, but its impact is strongly mediated by self-efficacy beliefs.” Since the sense of self-efficacy has the advantage of being relatively flexible, it is possible in many cases to reinforce it. “A small success that persuades the individual that he or she has everything needed to succeed allows him or her to rise far above that performance,” Bandura writes in essence in his seminal book on the subject Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control.
The most influential of the four sources for building a strong sense of self-efficacy is lived experience, that is, having experiences of mastery and success in a given task or activity.
In order to strengthen one’s efficacy beliefs, it is recommended to begin by familiarizing oneself with the four sources from which they may emerge. As identified by Bandura, these are mastery experiences, vicarious experience, social or verbal persuasion and physiological and emotional state. It should be noted that each of these sources can become complementary to the others, depending on the person and the context. The most influential of these in building a strong sense of self-efficacy is mastery experiences, that is, experiences of success in a given task or activity. However, success must not be too easy; otherwise, we risk attributing it to factors outside of ourselves. By the same logic, experiencing failure is likely to erode our self-efficacy.
The second most influential source is vicarious experience. Thus, seeing others experience mastery and success can increase one’s own sense of self-efficacy about the experiences in question. The more characteristics the observed person(s) have in common with oneself (age, gender, etc.), the more significant the impact of the vicarious experience tends to be. Conversely, if the person(s) being observed fails, then we are likely to question our own effectiveness in performing the same task.
The third source is social or verbal persuasion. It corresponds, for example, to the advice, encouragement or warnings that are addressed to us by people who are important to us and that can encourage us to believe more — or on the contrary, to make us doubt! — that we can succeed at a given task or activity. Body language can also fall into this category. This third source is much less important than the previous two, and factors such as the credibility and expertise of the speaker can make a difference. On the other hand, social or verbal persuasion is more likely to influence us if we have little experience in the field of activity in question. And if another’s intervention sounds false, unrealistic or exaggerated — even if the intention behind it is benevolent — its effect will quickly fall flat.
Finally, when we try to evaluate our abilities, our physiological and emotional states become a source of information that we take into account. If we have just performed poorly and associate it with various signs of emotional discomforts, such as tremors or palpitations, or with an aversive emotional state such as anxiety or sudden panic, we may infer that we do not have the resources to succeed at the task or activity. Fortunately, in a reverse scenario, a positive emotion such as the pleasure we take in accomplishing a task or activity can reinforce our sense of self-efficacy and encourage us to repeat the experience.
Knowing Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy and, more broadly, his socio-cognitive theory is a real asset to better learning, but also to reach success in every sphere of our lives. Although this feeling most often relates to a specific task or activity, its repercussions can find a wider resonance by encouraging us to value our work capacity and our perseverance. As the father of social cognitivism attests: “Powerful experiences of mastery can produce a profound transformation in one’s beliefs of effectiveness that manifests itself in various areas of functioning. Personal victories of this kind help to convince individuals that they have the capacity to exercise control over their lives. What becomes widespread is a belief in one’s ability to mobilize the effort necessary to succeed in various lines of work.”