How many times have you found yourself thinking along the lines of “I would love to be able to do that” only to then tell yourself “but I’ll never be able to”?
This kind of internal commentary can cross a wide spectrum of possibilities, from, for example, learning to play a musical instrument to starting a business to returning to formal education later in life, and just about any other challenge you can imagine.
Some of you reading this piece may have difficulty relating to the “I’ll never be able to do it” thought, while for others, it will be all-too familiar. This tendency, to either embrace challenges or shy away from them, relates to the idea of self-efficacy. Popularised by noted psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s, self-efficacy relates to our beliefs as individuals in our ability to achieve success or meet our goals in particular domains. The key point to emphasise here is that self-efficacy is linked primarily to our beliefs, not to our abilities. In that sense, it is far more subjective than objective. Also, while it can be predictive of outcomes (i.e., success or failure), this tends to be more in the sense of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ than in an accurate assessment of individual skills.
What do we mean by this? Well, consider the following hypothetical scenario – two individuals with the same basic level of skill approach a given challenge, let’s say learning a musical instrument. If one of these individuals tends towards high self-efficacy in this domain and one towards low self-efficacy, then the former is far more likely to make positive headway than the latter. This does not only hold true when people confronting a given task have the same level of skill or aptitude. It is also entirely possible that an individual with less basic talent but higher self-efficacy may well be more successful than someone with more basic talent but lower self-efficacy.
This may or may not make sense at first glance, but again, the key point to remember here is that self-efficacy relates to the beliefs we hold around our abilities, as opposed to being an objective measurement of the abilities themselves. These beliefs are crucial, as they influence and perhaps even dictate the attitude and motivation that we bring to any given task or challenge.
In essence, our level of self-efficacy is going to influence how we react when we encounter the inevitable challenges that life throws at us, i.e., the level of effort and persistence that we will bring to bear on the situation. People with high self-efficacy in a given sphere will continue to strive and push forward, even when they experience setbacks. If they happen upon an obstacle that they can’t overcome, they will work on it and themselves until they can. This is because high self-efficacy brings with it a belief in the possibility of success. And if you believe you can or will succeed, then this will have a positive influence on the level of effort you put in. You expect effort to be rewarded, therefore it seems logical to put more effort in. The opposite is true with low self-efficacy. If you are engaging in a task with little expectation that you will actually achieve the goal in question, then it takes very little to dissuade you from that path. When a substantial obstacle is encountered, people with low self-efficacy are more inclined to throw their hands in the air and give up. It makes sense on a certain level – if you don’t believe you will succeed, why would you continue to bang your head against the wall? A person who believes they will succeed will tend to try harder than a person who does not expect to succeed. What both parties do not always understand is that sometimes the effort is the key difference-maker, not the respective talents.
It is also important to emphasise that self-efficacy as Bandura envisages it is not rigid. It is not being proposed that if you have low self-efficacy in one sphere that the same will be true across the board. Instead, Bandura maintains that it is domain-specific; so, it is entirely possible that someone might have high self-efficacy as it relates to learning a musical instrument but low self-efficacy when trying to navigate the multiple necessary tasks related to starting a business.
But what if you feel that you have low self-efficacy in a given sphere and would like to improve that? As with any belief-related construct, awareness is a key first step. Far too often, we never question our beliefs (faulty or otherwise) and merely take them to be true. Several strategies have been proposed, but all seek to build on that awareness. When that is established, individuals have opened themselves up to the possibility of positive change, and then approaches such as proceeding step-by-step (building one small change at a time), remembering past successes, and identifying positive role models can yield positive results.
Of course, none of the above should not be taken as an endorsement of the questionable, but oft quoted statement “you can be whatever you want to be”. A noble sentiment, perhaps, but when taken literally, it can convince people that if they try hard enough in any given sphere, that they will succeed, and that if they did not succeed, then they must not have tried hard enough. That is not what we are saying here. If I decide in the morning that I want to be an astronaut, then it is highly unlikely that I will succeed, no matter how much I commit to the idea or how high my belief in my ability to achieve that goal. For one thing, the physics and maths requirements would most likely prove beyond me, while there might also be minor age-related issue…
The point being, self-efficacy can sometimes be either misappropriated or misunderstood by the less rigorous end of the self-help industry, but this does not mean that an understanding of what it actually refers to cannot be extraordinarily helpful. Consciously seeking to cultivate self-efficacy may not see you conquer the world, but what it can do is help you to maximise your own potential in any given sphere.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.