Self-Efficacy: The exercise of control

Introduction

This blog post is an attempt to condense some learnings on self-efficacy. Some of us have been introduced to the concept by this illuminating book – A Defining Decade by Meg Jay.  The internet unfortunately does not provide good content on what self-efficacy is, how to build it up, the numerous aspects in which it affects your life, so the only way to dig these up is to go straight to the source – Albert Bandura’s psychology textbook that collates his pioneering research on the subject. The book, however, is 604 pages long and extremely dense with strictly academic language. A tl;dr version exists here; short, approachable, yet in heavily academic language as well. This blog post is a ‘notes to self’ version of the book, and an attempt to make learnings from the book accessible.

What is self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy is the set of beliefs and attitudes that you can get something done, influence things and events in your environments and cause certain outcomes.
Self-efficacy is not the same thing as confidence – you can be supremely confident that you will fail. Confidence is the degree of strength of a belief.
Self-efficacy is also not the same as knowing you will succeed – self-efficacy says you have a sense of agency, and that you have control, no matter what the outcome.

If you have heard any of the following references growing up and wondered if they were merely feel-good things to tell yourself, here is the good news – self-efficacy research that provides a solid backing to and understanding of these popular sayings

  • Whether you think you can or you cannot, you are right.
  • I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. 
  • Life’s battles do not go to the strongest or biggest man, sooner or later (they) go to the one who he thinks he can.

Why should I care about it?

Research shows that people with a self-efficacious outlook –

  • approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than threats to be avoided.
  • foster an intrinsic interest in the activities they take up, and are deeply engrossed in them.
  • set themselves challenging goals and maintain a strong commitment to them.
  • heighten and sustain their efforts in the face of failure.
  • quickly recover their sense of efficacy or belief in themselves after setbacks or failures.
  • attribute failure to insufficient effort or deficient knowledge and skills which are acquirable, rather than some innate deficiency with themselves.
  • approach threatening situations with an assurance that they can exercise control over them.
  • have reduced stress and lower vulnerability to depression.
  • have higher levels of accomplishment.

If such people sound awesome, self-efficacy is worth learning about.

 

This sounds like it is about work and accomplishments. I am not ambitious or I don’t like talking about these subjects. Why should I care about it?

Efficacy doesn’t just affect how you perform, it affects your thought-processes, the attitude you carry to pretty much any situation and as a consequence, social and emotional aspects of your life. For example, take shyness. Research shows that shy people know perfectly well how to behave socially and how to pull off smalltalk. They are simply reticent because their perception (self-efficacy) of their social skills is poor.

This is great. How do I build efficacy?

Success heightens your sense of efficacy, failure undermines it. Failure that occurs before your sense of efficacy is hardened and has become resilient, hits you harder. There are 4 ways known in research to build and strengthen self-efficacy, listed below in decreasing order of effectiveness:
  1. Mastery Experiences: This is the best way to build efficacy. The more you have experience in overcoming obstacles through perseverant effort, the more heightened your sense of efficacy is. At some point, you will find it natural to persevere in the face of adversity and quickly rebound from setbacks.
  2. Vicarious experiences: Ever heard a friend talk about how they got a job offer, hiked a place or negotiated something and felt yourself saying “hmm.. so that’s how she did it. I can pull that!” That is your self-efficacy being built through vicarious experiences. This is the next best way to develop efficacy  – through the experiences of people close to oneself, or people similar to oneself. The more you see your role models as similar to yourself, the more your sense of efficacy is heightened by their experiences and accomplishments.
  3. Verbal persuasion: Verbal persuasions from people around you serve as a counter-attack to your self-doubts and your tendency to dwell on personal deficiency.
    • Keep in mind that verbal persuasion is more effective the other way round, that is, when someone tells you you can’t do something, you will give up very easily despite proof in favor of your ability. In contrast, when someone persuades you that you will succeed at something, that persuasion isn’t as effective in the face of setbacks.
    • Successful efficacy builders are wonderful people – they not only verbally encourage you, but they also put you in situations where you are more likely to succeed. They might also shield you from situations where you will prematurely fail, so you can build the reserves of confidence and resilience first. Such builders measure their success in terms of self-improvement rather than triumph over others. If you have had a good parent, elder, teacher or coach, you know what an efficacy builder looks like.
  4. Self-interpretation of physical and emotional states: The fourth way to modify your selfefficacy is to reduce your stress and your misinterpretations of your physical and emotional states. You frequently interpret your stress and tension as signs of vulnerability to poor performance. You judge your fatigue, aches and pains as signs of physical debility. Positive mood enhances selfefficacy, despondent mood diminishes it.
    • Simplified example – kids doing strenuous physical activity for a new sport were asked questions about how they felt. Low performers (in the long run) were linked with low selfefficacy and they were more prone to responses such as “I tried hard, and then it hurt a lot, and at some point I gave up”. “I am not good at this sort of thing.” High performers (in the long run) gave responses along the lines of – “It was ok”. “If you concentrate enough, it gets better”.
    • The less your tendency to read too much into your increased heartbeat or pain sensations during training, the more likely you are to succeed at anything physical. Those who read their fatigues, aches and lowered stamina as signs of their declining physical capacity are likely to curtail their physical activities more than those who regard such signs as effects of sedentariness.
    • Effective coping with stress is important -studies show that for people who cope poorly with stresses, “the harder they try, the more likely they are to impair their execution of the activity.” It is not just about how hard you will work. Performances that call for ingenuity, resourcefulness and adaptability depend more on adroit use of skills, specialized knowledge and analytic strategies than on simple dint of effort.
    • The relationship between efficacy and physical/emotional states (stress) works the other way around as well, setting up a virtuous cycle – the stronger your sense of efficacy, the bolder you will be in in taking on problematic situations that breed stress and the greater your success in shaping them more to your liking.

Other sources of self-efficacy

  • Self-modeling: This is an amazing concept, and falls under the same bucket as guided mastery. If you have ever had someone talk into you visualizing yourself as a successful, there is research to back why it works. In this study which targets toddlers with language delays, subjects are shown edited videos of themselves where they are performing without any hesitations or mistakes. When they see what they can be, they improve! This is found to apply to adults as well -after observing themselves perform effectively, people display substantial improvement in performance compared to their baseline level or in activities where they were filmed but not observed by themselves. Further studies have shown that observation of illusory skillfulness is just as effective as observation of actual skillfulness. Therefore, having an active imagination and a positive mindset will help boost your self-efficacy. Self-modeling technically falls into 3 categories, listed below, but use your imagination to develop ways you like –
    • Reconstructive self-modelling – individual performs a task, deficiencies are edited away;
    • Constructive self-modelling – individual performs several small sub-components of a task, skillful editing makes it seem like one big task was achieved;
    • Cognitive self-modelling – people visualize themselves repeatedly confronting and mastering progressively more challenging or threatening situations.
  • It is hard to beat observed personal attainment as a self-persuader of capability.
  • Bringing one’s successful past to bear on present difficulties weakens their negative impact.
  • Hard-fought victories do wonders for personal efficacy. The change in mindset is reflected in the words of a rising tennis star – “my biggest weakness is my head. I am starting to believe in myself to win over players I had previously only expected to get good scores against. Now I am thinking – bullshit good score. I can win.
  • Relationships: Supportive relationships can enhance personal efficacy. They can model effective coping attitudes, strategies for managing problem situations, demonstrate the value of perseverance and provide positive incentives and resources for efficacious coping.
  • Moods: Your mood in the moment as a high impact on all types of efficacy. However, the range of your past failings and attainments set limits on how much change in self-appraisal your mood can produce.

Misc. notes

  • Some aspects of efficacy theory tie very well with the Growth Mindset.
  • How does a fixed mindset limit you? Individuals who view ability as a more or less inherent aptitude regard performance level as a diagnostic/measurement of endowed capability. If you carry a fixed mindset, errors and deficient performances carry a high threat level for you because they signify intellectual limitations. You will prefer tasks that minimize errors. You will permit ready display of your intellectual proficiency at the expense of expanding your knowledge and competencies.
  • Keep in mind however, that how you perceive your ability isn’t fixed in time and does not apply to the whole of your life. For example, a novelist may high self-efficacy when it comes to writing, she thinks of it as a skill that can be perfected, and perseveres on it, while thinking that mathematical ability is innate and hence fixed for her.
  • What does a perceived lack of control do to you? You will shun even easily manageable activities because you see them as leading to more threatening events over which you will be unable to exercise control. In the words of Shakespeare, “our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
  • What does perceived control buy you? Let’s use this study as an example. Agoraphobics (people prone to panic attacks by overwhelming, unfamiliar environments) were divided into two groups and exposed to increasing levels of CO2. One group was told they couldn’t do anything to reduce the rising CO2 level. The other group was told they could use a valve to reduce the CO2 flow, but the valve was a placebo. The second group reported much fewer panic attacks. Agoraphobics who believed they were exercising control remained calm and rarely experienced panic attacks.

 

How does my efficacy affect me? 

 Efficacy can affect your functioning as a human through the following 4 human processes.

(1) Cognitive: Efficacy and your thought process

  •  As a human, you often construct and rehearse anticipatory scenarios.
  • One of the functions of thoughts is to predict events, and develop ways to control the events that will influence our lives.
  • If you have higher efficacy, you will construct positive scenarios that visualize success, and provide guides for your success.
  • If you have low efficacy, you will tend to visualize failure scenarios and dwell on the many things that can go wrong.
  • What does a reference to ‘your thought process’ really mean?
    • You are digesting the information available to you. You are processing this input that contains many ambiguities and uncertainties.
    • You are constructing opinions.
    • You are weighing and integrating predicting factors, testing and revising your judgement, against the immediate and distance result of your actions.
    • You have to remember what factors you tested your judgement against and how well they worked.
  • WORTH REMEMBERING: Lower efficacy implies higher effect of stress, and causes you to become more erratic in your analytical thinking when conditions get tough.
 

(2) Motivation: Efficacy and your motivation

  • As a human, you motivate yourself and guide your actions through forethoughts about what might pan out. You form beliefs about what you can do.
  • Selfefficacy influences what causes you attribute success or failure to.
  • There are countless attractive options that you do not pursue because you believe you lack the capabilities for them.
  • If you make your self-satisfaction conditional on how much of your goals you are meeting, you are giving direction to your behavior and creating incentives for yourself to persist in your efforts till you meet your goals.
  • Motivation is perhaps best sustained by (1) a strong sense of efficacy to withstand failure, coupled with (2) some uncertainty that is ascribed to the challenge of the task rather than to fundamental doubts about your abilities to fulfill the challenge.

(3) Affective Processes: Efficacy and your emotions

  • If you believe you can exercise control over threats, you will not conjure up disturbing thought patterns.
  • If you believe you cannot manage threats, you will experience high anxiety,  and dwell on your coping deficiencies. You may magnify potential threads and view your environment as fraught with danger.
  • The stronger the sense of selfefficacy the bolder people are in taking on taxing and threatening activities.
  • Perceived efficacy to control your thought-processes is a key factor in regulating stress and depression that stems from your thoughts.
  • “You cannot prevent the birds of worry from flying over your nest. But you can prevent them from making a nest in your head” – Ancient Proverb.
  • Achievement of coping efficacy profoundly affects dream activity.
  • It is not stressful conditions themselves, but your perceived inability to deal with them or control them that is debilitating. Formerly neutral events acquire anxiety-provoking properties by association with painful experiences. e.g. individuals develop a phobia of mountain driving as a result of a mishap on a hairpin turn. Getting them back on the mountain roadway requires restoring confidence in their driving abilities, not pairing the mountain with benign stimuli.

How can a low selfefficacy drive you to depression?

  • Failure to control thought patterns and processes:
    • The self-regulation of thought-processes plays a significant role in the maintenance of emotional well-being. With a lower sense of agency, you won’t control your thought-processes, letting worrisome and fearful thoughts dominate.
    •  MANY HUMAN DISTRESSES ARE EXACERBATED IF NOT CREATED BY FAILURES OF THOUGHT CONTROL.
    • Thought-control failure results in reduced focus and concentration on the task and difficulties at hand.
    • How does high efficacy help you here? It requires supreme confidence in one’s capabilities to remain task-focused in high-pressure situations. Those who distrust their capabilities are very likely to find themselves thinking about what is at stake and the grave consequences of fouling up.
    • This is why mindfulness meditation and time spent with friends or ‘tools’ such as humor are important.  They create positive diversions and provide beneficial lifestyle perspectives, preventing ruminative thoughts and increasing efficacy.
    • If you find yourself unable to control you thought patterns, an effective way is to limit when, where and how much you will think about something. Chronic worriers in this study performed much better when they followed the instructions to limit their worrying to a particular hour of the day and a given place.
  • Disconnect between your standards for yourself and your perceived performance: You will impose on yourself standards of self-worth that you judge you cannot attain. Compared to the non-depressed, the depressed generally set higher standards for themselves relative to their attainments. This is an easy route to getting miserable. Therefore, don’t allow a large gap between your personal standards of merit and your perceived self-efficacy to attain them.
  • Lack of socializing: Your perceived social inefficacy will prevent you from seeking out and cultivating social relationships that will provide you models in dealing with difficult situations, cushion the adverse effects of chronic stressors, and bring satisfaction to your life.
Some successful individuals display anticipatory pessimism. They concoct worst-case scenarios and spend formidable time and effort preparing for them. There is evidence to suggest that this could be due to a lack of structured guidance in their early family life, which required them to develop self-management skills. However, if carried too far, preparatory negative thinking turns into a stressor and debilitator rather than a motivator. In the long run, optimists fare much better in psychosocial well-being and academic accomplishments.

(4) Selection Processes: Selfefficacy and your choices

  • Your belief in your selfefficacy will determine the activities and societies that you choose. In general, you will tend to avoid things for which you don’t believe you have the coping abilities.
  • Error in your self-appraisal and overestimating your capabilities is usually a good thing – all inventors, leaders, artists demonstrate this.
  • Efficacy belief is a major basis of action. “Unless people believe they can produce the desired effects by their actions, they have little incentive to act.

 

Selfefficacy and career

  • Work is more than just a source of income. It is what gives you a sense of self-worth and personal identity.
  • Selfefficacy influences –
    • what you choose for your work
    • how well you prepare yourself for it
    • the level of success you achieve in your everyday work.
  • Collective efficacy determines what you achieve as a group at work. This is why it is important to let your colleagues build up trust in your abilities and intentions.
  • What you think about when choosing a career path –
    • the type of identity you want to construct for yourself
    • uncertainties about your current capabilities
    • stability of your interests
    • current and long-range prospects of alternate occupations.
  • It is not perceived efficacy for isolated skillsets, but the perceived efficacy to use them together under varying demands that predicts the choices people make and their performance/accomplishment.
  • Claims from the book: Women tend to have lower perceived self-efficacy in traditionally-perceived-to-be-male fields. However, sex differences disappear when women judge their efficacy to perform the same investigative abilities that scientists perform but in everyday activities rather than in the context of scientific occupations.
  • Claims from the book: Women are more likely to base their liking of occupations much more on their perceived efficacy than on the allure of the potential benefits that the vocations yield. Men think more about potential gains than their perceived efficacy at performing the job.
  • Efficacy in making sound choices has assumed increased importance in the realization of a satisfying occupational life.”
  • Decisional sub-skills required for career development –
    • gathering information about different occupations
    • self-appraisal of qualities and interest
    • selecting lifestyle goals that specify appropriate occupations
    • planning coherent courses of action to achieve the selected goals.
  • Your perceived efficacy at these sub-skills is going to influence how much homework you put into your career development and how successful you are at it. “Stronger the perceived decisional efficacy, higher the level of exploratory activity designed to aid selection and planning of a career.”
  • Perceived efficacy and job-interviews – the sway of your capabilities is readily negated by your ineffectual self-presentation in job interviews.
  • Research shows that programs of ‘guided mastery’ that build or restore a sense of efficacy in laid-off workers boost re-employment rates.
  • Success on the job relies partly on selfefficacy in dealing with the social realities of work situations. These include –
    • the ability to communicate well
    • ability to relate effectively to others
    • ability to exercise leadership
    • ability to cope with stress effectively
    • ability to plan and manage the demands of one’s job.
  • Interpersonal and self-regulatory skills contribute more heavily to career success than do technical or occupational skills.
  • Technical skills can be learned readily but psychosocial skills are more difficult to develop and often even more difficult to modify if they are dysfunctional.
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