Self-efficacy helps explain many puzzles of our motivation:
- Why do we give up on our fitness plan, even though we know we need to be healthier?
- Why do we waste time on our phones instead of studying when the exam date looms close?
- Why do we sometimes feel excited to take on a new challenge but other times shrink away?
Understanding self-efficacy can also help us build our motivation. But to appreciate the theory, we need to step back and take a look at an earlier, simpler theory of motivation that self-efficacy was intended to correct.
Rational Expectations: Motivation for Robots
Rational expectations was a prominent theory of motivation, independently proposed by both Edward Tolman and Kurt Lewin in the first half of the twentieth century.
It proposes that our subjective feeling of motivation is an unconscious calculation of the benefits and costs we’d experience from taking an action. Put mathematically:
Motivation = Benefits x Probability – Costs
To use a concrete example, according to rational expectations, the motivation I feel for exercising would come from the benefit I expect to achieve (getting in shape), multiplied by the chance that exercising leads to that benefit, minus the costs of effort of sticking to my fitness program.
As implied by its name, rational expectations are, well, rational. This theory suggests that whenever we don’t feel motivated, it’s simply because we’ve judged another option to be more valuable for us. Accordingly, if we failed to exercise and sat around watching Netflix instead, we valued keeping up on our shows more than having a beach body. No mystery at all.
Rational expectations isn’t a terrible theory—it’s probably a pretty good approximation of why we’re motivated in many cases. But it’s also the kind of motivational theory we’d expect of a robot, rather than a human being—it assumes we perfectly weigh the options and always make the right choice.
Motivation for Humans: Self-Efficacy Intervenes
Albert Bandura theorized that what was missing from rational expectations was an intervening step. It isn’t enough to have expectations about the outcomes of our actions; we must also have expectations about our ability to take those actions.
Consider our exercising example again. Bandura argued it isn’t enough to look at our expectations about outcomes (the chance that exercising will improve our fitness). We must also examine our expectations about our ability to take action (whether we believe we can stick to our exercise program). The former may be high enough to justify the cost, but we’ll be stuck with low motivation if the latter is low.
Bandura articulated it in the following way:
Self-efficacy helps to explain why, even when we want an outcome, we might not work toward it:
- It’s not just our desire to graduate, but our belief that we are capable of learning the material.
- It’s not just our desire to own a business, but our belief that we can make it successful.
- It’s not just our desire to have a relationship, but our belief that we can ask someone out without being rejected.
Bandura’s theory improved on rational expectations because it argued that wanting an outcome isn’t enough to motivate you into action; you must also be confident in your ability to take the actions required to reach that outcome.
Common Confusions About Self-Efficacy
Before I explain some of the implications of self-efficacy, I want to clarify what self-efficacy is not:
- Self-efficacy is not self-esteem. Self-esteem is how you value yourself. Self-efficacy is your belief that you can succeed in taking a particular course of action. You can believe you’re wonderful while also believing you’re incapable of learning quantum mechanics.
- Self-efficacy is not self-concept. Self-concept is how you think about yourself. Self-efficacy is about how you think about your ability to perform a given set of actions.
- Self-efficacy is not confidence. As Bandura explains, “Confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about. I can be supremely confident that I will fail at an endeavor.”
Self-efficacy may be an academic theory, but we all have some experience with the concept. We can recall situations where we felt assured of our abilities, and others where we seriously doubted we could succeed. We know first-hand the consequences these beliefs had on our motivation.
Bandura’s contribution goes beyond merely labeling this common experience and suggests important implications for understanding our motivation.
What Causes Self-Efficacy
Bandura’s research found that there are four major moderators for self-efficacy.
The first two were weak moderators—they could have small effects, but they weren’t reliable:
- Bodily arousal. Think of the sweaty palms and racing heart that accompany stage fright or the queasiness that comes before a big exam. These can make it harder to perform, even if you otherwise would be able to in a relaxed state.
- Verbal persuasion. The crowd cheering as you finish a race. A teacher telling you that you can do it. Simple affirmations that you can or can’t do something can influence self-efficacy, but the impact is unreliable.
In contrast to these weaker effects, Bandura identified two more consistent sources of self-efficacy:
- Vicarious experience. Witnessing someone perform the task increases self-efficacy. Firstly, this works by giving us a way to learn an effective strategy: If I watch someone solve a puzzle, I can copy their approach to get the same result. There is also a motivational piece: If I see another spider-phobic person touch a tarantula, I might gain courage to do so as well.
- Personal mastery. Personally experiencing success with a task (or something like it) is the most powerful tool improving self-efficacy. I’ll feel more confident I can run a marathon after I’ve run a half-marathon. I’ll feel more confident I can be a software developer after I’ve aced my intro programming class.
It’s likely that people with strong self-efficacy, and thus, high degrees of motivation to work on ambitious goals, have had plenty of both vicarious and personal mastery experiences.
Non-Obvious Implications of Self-Efficacy
While the feeling of self-efficacy is something we all know, the implications of the theory are not always obvious.
Here are a few important corollaries of the theory:
1. Motivation builds from success.
Because personal mastery is crucial in building self-efficacy, a long string of failures at the beginning of an endeavor is more likely to demotivate than build grit.
Does this mean that the best way to motivate is to experience only success? Not quite. As Bandura himself puts it:
Performance accomplishments provide the most dependable source of efficacy expectations because they are based on one’s own personal experiences. Successes raise mastery expectations; repeated failures lower them, especially if mishaps occur early in the course of events. After strong efficacy expectations are developed through repeated success, the negative impact of occasional failures is likely to be reduced. Indeed occasional failures that are later overcome by determined effort can strengthen self-motivated persistence through experience that even the most difficult of obstacles can be mastered by sustained effort. The effects of failure on personal efficacy therefore partly depend on the timing and the total pattern of experiences in which they occur. Once established, efficacy expectancies tend to generalize to related situations.
If you have low self-efficacy, it helps to build a foundation of success. Once you have established a basic level of confidence, mixing challenges with occasional setbacks helps make that self-efficacy more robust. You’ll learn that you can succeed, even in the face of momentary difficulties.
2. The confidence spiral can go up—or down.
The mathematics of self-efficacy form a positive feedback loop. Consider:
- You have some self-efficacy, which enables you to take action and achieve a result.
- Success from taking the action increases your self-efficacy.
- Next time, you are more motivated to take the previous action.
Eventually, your motivation would plateau at the level implied by the rational expectations theory (which is one reason why even some tasks we’re supremely confident in, like washing dishes, don’t inspire ecstatic motivation).
Conversely, motivation can also crash as we experience lowered self-efficacy:
- You have some self-efficacy, and take action, but you fail to follow up or fully complete the action.
- Not achieving the desired result decreases your perceived self-efficacy.
- Next time, you have less motivation to take the previous action.
This motivation spiral plateaus at total inhibition to take the desired action. The effect is familiar to anyone who has tried a new pursuit a few times, stumbled, and then found it difficult or aversive to attack the problem again. Low self-efficacy can be a trap we stumble into.
3. Learn from Others, Succeed Yourself.
Self-efficacy was only a part of Bandura’s broader social learning theory. In it, he argued that most of what we know comes from other people, and we learn how to do most things by witnessing the behavior of others—not through our own trial-and-error.
This suggests that a critical way to build self-efficacy is to closely study people who are successful in the pursuit you care about—see how they do it until you understand the actions they’re taking and why. Their success isn’t a mystery; it’s a logical outcome of the series of decisions they have made and actions they have taken.
If you combine this careful study approach with taking the same actions yourself, you’re using the two most powerful levers Bandura identified to increase your self-efficacy and, thus, your motivation for working on challenging goals.
Bandura, Albert. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1997.
Bandura, Albert. Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977.