By Harwant Khush | Research consultant, Tero International Inc.

"If you think you can, you probably can. If you think you can’t — well, that self-limiting and self-fulfilling belief might well stop you doing something you’re perfectly capable of doing." -Albert Bandura

The power of believing in one’s abilities when facing a challenging situation is when we say, "I think I can do it" or "Let me try; I can handle it." It is the grit and self-assurance to cope with problematic or unpredictable conditions.

Psychologists call this phenomenon "self-efficacy." Self-efficacy, or believing in oneself, is the prime predictor that makes people winners or losers in any given situation.

What makes some people face daunting situations with great courage, while others give up?

History has ample examples of how some people with strong self-efficacy became successful despite all odds against them. To mention a few, Walt Disney, the internationally successful businessman, was fired from his job at the age of 22 from a Missouri newspaper for "not being creative enough." Oprah Winfrey’s first boss told her she was too emotional and not right for television, and later on, her show became one of the highest-rated shows in American history. Former President Barack Obama mobilized his electoral base with the slogan "Yes, we can" and became the first black president of the USA. What did all these people or other such successful individuals have in common? The significant factor to their success was their persistence, sustained effort and profound belief in themselves.

Theoretical foundations of self-efficacy

Dr. Albert Bandura of Stanford University conceptualized and published the self-efficacy theory in 1977 under the title "Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change." This theory became the most significant contribution to the science of psychology in the 20th century. 

According to Bandura, self-efficacy is 
"people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives. Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave."

Efficacy may be general or specific. General efficacy is when a person embodies a profound belief in one’s overall abilities to succeed. Specific efficacy is related to mastery and competency in particular skills, e.g., ability to succeed in academics, public speaking or sports. Self-efficacy is frequently confused with other self-concepts such as self-confidence, self-esteem and self-realization. Despite certain common fundamentals, there are also vital differences in these concepts.

Self-efficacy vs. self-confidence

According to Bandura, "Confidence is a common term that refers to the strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about. ... Perceived self-efficacy refers to belief in one’s agentive capabilities that one can produce a given level of attainment." 

Self-confidence assures the accomplishment of a challenging task, but may not provide certainty of the desired outcome  while self-efficacy represents an unwavering belief in oneself in delivering results. Nevertheless, these are closely linked concepts; the more confident a person is, the higher is the probability of succeeding.

Strategies to enhance self-efficacy

Efficacy is neither an innate trait that we are born with nor a part of our DNA. Social psychologists have tried to find out how emotional, psychological and other environmental factors enhance it. Albert Bandura specifies four methods to enhance one’s self-efficacy:

1. Mastery experiences: The most effective way is through experience, practice and continuously challenging oneself to take on complex and inspiring projects. Experiences build competence and confidence.

2. Vicarious experiences (social role models): By observing and emulating the behavior of successful role models and mentors, and of parents. These experiences provide focus and energy to state, "If they can do it, I should be able to do it too" or "I want to be like them." Positive role models are vital to boost efficacy. According to Bandura: "Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers’ beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities to succeed."

3. Social persuasion: Receiving positive feedback while tackling a complicated issue is vital to continue steadfastly on any project. People genuinely like hearing positive reviews about their skills and capabilities to succeed. Verbal encouragement is invariably a vital tool in helping to achieve goals and efficiently delivering positive results.

4. Emotional and physiological states: The emotional, physical and psychological well-being of a person is vital to maintain effectiveness. People with chronic anxiety, depression or emotional stress would typically have a hard time moving forward and an insufficient level of confidence.

James Maddux and other social psychologists have further suggested significant factors to improve efficacy:

1. Imaginal experiences/visualization: The route to self-efficacy is through "the art of visualizing yourself behaving effectively or successfully in a given situation."

2. Setting goals: Setting achievable, realistic and time-bound goals would enhance resilience and growth mindset. The fun of achieving initial goals and receiving positive feedback is a significant lift to consider advanced goals.

3. Building on strengths and not wasting time on thinking about weaknesses: Find out what one is good at, what a person enjoys accomplishing the most, and what provides happiness. This information should become a steppingstone in building and accomplishing results.

4. Developing a resilient mindset: Robert Brooks, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, says to "avoid self-defeating assumptions. One of the greatest impediments to life is the fear of humiliation." Brooks also states that he has "worked with people who say they’ve spent the last 30 years of their lives not taking any risks because they are afraid of making mistakes."

5. Training, coaching and working efficiently with professionals in one’s area of interest is a vital tool in building proficiencies and in enhancing competencies.

We are all familiar with the fascinating story of "The Little Engine that Could." The story goes that when all big engines refused to pull the train over the mountain because they thought it was too hard to do so, the little engine said, "I think I can, I think I can." The little engine carefully pulled the train and saved the day by delivering presents to children in time. The moral of the story is that the successful accomplishment of a task depends on believing in oneself and showing determination to accomplish it.

Self-efficacy represents a trait and skill that can be built upon and enhanced. It is not an innate trait that we inherit through genes. All it takes is some grit, determination and belief in one’s abilities to handle a task. People who do not believe in themselves eventually become ineffectual, incompetent and undoubtedly have a difficult time facing the realities of life. In the words of Bandura: "In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life."

Dr. Harwant Khush is a research consultant for Tero International. Originally from Tanzania and India, Harwant has a master's degree in psychology from Punjab University in Chandigarh, Punjab, India. She also has a master's in education from California State University in Sacramento. She also holds a Ph.D. in education from the University of the Philippines, Los Banos (UPLB), and worked as an affiliate scientist in the Research Management Center. She taught graduate courses in management and public administration in the Colegio De Los Banos in Laguna, Philippines. As a member of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Davis Branch, she served as its media relations chairperson. Harwant continually contributes to numerous articles for Tero publications.