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Self-Efficacy

William Dubin, Ph.D.

I am a psychologist who works with those who can afford my fee. My clients tend to be impressive individuals who generally accomplish what they set out to accomplish; they typically develop the necessary skills and work industriously until they achieve their goal. But when it comes to controlling their use of a particular incentive [e.g., alcohol, food, sex, gambling] they perform less well, astoundingly less well.

Perseverance and Self-Efficacy

businessmanIn contrast to ordinary language in which a word may mean different things to different individuals, a technical term has a single definition. Self-Efficacy refers to the expectation that one can master the challenge. "I can fix any computer problem" is an example of the confident expectation of a person with high self-efficacy in that domain. That same person may have low self-efficacy in another domain: "I am a nerd and will probably be socially awkward at the party."

As you would expect, self-efficacy influences performance: People with high self-efficacy can tolerate physical discomfort and surprising amounts of frustration, and yet they persevere, creatively solve problems, and stay the course until one way or another they accomplish what they set out to accomplish. In contrast, people with low self-efficacy tend to abandon the effort after minor discomforts or frustrations. "I'm not going to succeed anyway, so why suffer more than necessary?" is an example of the demoralized attitude of a person with low self-efficacy in a particular domain.

Achieving a worthwhile outcome often requires that you tolerate some discomfort or frustration. A mountain climber would never achieve the intended outcome if [s]he abandoned the task at the first sign of discomfort or frustration. It is persevering in the face of challenge that is part of the adventure of mountain climbing. But discomfort and frustration do not evoke a heroic reaction from people with low self-efficacy. Instead of triggering resolve and creative problem solving, setbacks and discomfort often elicit negative emotional reactions such as hopelessness, guilt, or self-loathing, which may motivate them to abandon the effort. People relapse because they misperceive the nature of their challenge and underestimate what is required to achieve good outcome.

A Peak Experience

Mountain climbing is a metaphor for a difficult but surmountable challenge. It would be foolhardy to attempt a serious climb without proper preparation or without the understanding that you will probably encounter physical discomfort and difficult challenges along the way. Despite the dangers and obstacles, most people who set out to climb a mountain successfully achieve their goal and remember their adventures as peak experiences. Mountain climbing is hard and often painful, but people take it on voluntarily without financial compensation because it's fun to experience the enhanced self-efficacy that results from mastering a difficult challenge. In fact, when competent individuals have realistic expectations about the nature of their challenge, they tend to perform responsibly, and persevere-despite the physical and mental discomforts they encounter-until the goal is achieved. The difficulty of the challenge is in fact an essential part of the story, and the whole enterprise-including the discomfort-is often remembered as a positive experience.

In contrast, the vast majority of people who resolve to change their relationship with an addictive incentive do not have realistic expectations about the nature of their challenge. Consequently, they relapse, become demoralized, and lose faith in their ability to overcome their problem. The resulting diminishment of low self-efficacy makes future failures more likely, which in turn lowers self-efficacy, and so it goes.

It is important to distinguish between process and outcome. The mountain summit is the nominal or outcome goal of the mountain climber's efforts. Performing well is the process goal. For the climber, the real goal of going mountain climbing is the peak experience that results from engaging the challenge. The function of the summit is to provide a focus that gives structure to the activity and later to the story the climber will tell friends, family, and self. If, for example, a storm developed during the climb and the team performed brilliantly by getting everyone off the mountain with no injuries, the climber would feel successful despite failing to achieve the outcome goal.

Major life accomplishments emerge over time as you systematically solve the problems encountered along the way. In domains in which you are successful, it is likely that you focus on the task rather than on self-evaluation. Actual success is encouraged by an attitude that permits you to competently and consistently perform all the actions required to achieve your goal, the pleasant ones as well as the unpleasant ones. Ironically, low self-efficacy often causes people to focus more on outcomes than process. Understand this: Good outcome is a byproduct of good performance.

Self-Efficacy Research Highlights

  • Action oriented thinking makes success more likely:
    • Individuals who have high self-efficacy are willing to tolerate physical discomfort and psychological frustration without abandoning the path to their goal.
    • Individuals with high self-efficacy tend to employ an action oriented thinking style-that is, they focus on how to solve the problems.
  • State oriented thinking makes failure more likely:
    • Individuals with low self-efficacy tend to abandon their goal in the face of even minor obstacles.
    • Individuals with low self-efficacy tend to employ a state oriented thinking style-that is, they focus on how they feel and why they feel that way.

Thought Experiment: Efficacy Enhancing Imagery.

Consider an area of your life in which you are usually successful-athletic, artistic, occupational, social, etc-and imagine what it feels like to be you when you take on a challenge in this domain. Elaborate this imagery until you experience the confident state associated with high self-efficacy. Now, imagine that you are presented with an impressive new challenge in this domain: What is your attitude toward it? How would you expect to react to the discomforts and frustrations you encounter?