“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” – Edmund Hillary

Self-efficacy is defined by psychologist Albert Bandura as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives.”  This translates into a belief not about what we believe our skills to be, but what we believe we can do with our skills under certain conditions.  Even if we belief ourselves to be quite skilled in a certain area of life, this belief does not translate into self-efficacy unless we believe that these skills will manifest into competent action.

Premises of Social Cognitive Theory

The Handbook of Positive Psychology (Snyder & Lopez, 2005) explains that self-efficacy beliefs develop over time and through experience.  Self-efficacy is best understood in relation to social cognitive theory, which has four basic premises:

1. Our cognitive capabilities allow for the creation of internal models of experience and the communication of complex ideas to others.  We are capable of self-observation and analyzing our own thoughts and experience.  This reflective capacity enables us to engage in self-regulation.

2. Environmental factors and internal factors influence one another.  We respond to events cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally.  Our thinking controls our behavior, which in turn influences both the environment and our emotional and physiological states.

3. Self and personality are socially embedded terms.  Since perceptions of self and other are socially embedded, personality and self are more than what we bring to interactions with others – they are created in these interactions.

4. We are capable of self-regulation.  We select our goals and regulate our behaviors in pursuit of goals.  The core of regulation involves the ability to anticipate expectancies – using past knowledge and experiences to predict future events about our abilities and behavior.

Development of Self-Efficacy

These basic assumptions of social cognitive theory tell us that self-efficacy is influenced by two interacting factors: (1) the development of the capacity for symbolic thought (understanding cause and effect relationships) and the capacity for self-reflection and self-observation, as well as (2) the responsiveness of the environment to the child’s attempts at control (Snyder & Lopez, 2005).  As children, we begin to learn that events cause other events, recognizing our personal power to influence future events through our present actions.

What do we do if we didn’t learn as children that we were capable of influencing our external environment through deliberate action?  Many children grow up in chaotic households where they gradually learn that the environment around them does not change no matter what they do.  This pattern can continue into adulthood as a lack of personal agency or a sense of helplessness.  It is then incumbent upon these individuals, as adults, to begin to build up self-efficacy through repeated attempts at mastery and development of competence.

Benefits of Self-Efficacy

There is a great deal of research on the benefits of self-efficacy.  For starters, self-efficacy positively influences the likelihood of adopting healthy behaviors, letting go of unhealthy behaviors, and maintaining healthy habits in the face of adversity.  Research has also shown that enhancement of self-efficacy beliefs “is crucial to successful change and maintenance of virtually every behavior crucial to health, including exercise, diet, stress management, safe sex, smoking cessation, overcoming alcohol abuse, compliance with treatment and prevention regimens, and disease detection behaviors” (Snyder & Lopez, 2005; Bandura, 1997; Maddux et al., 1995).

How to Build Self-Efficacy

Clearly there is a wide range of benefits to cultivating self-efficacy, but how do we begin to develop this belief in our own competence?  Michelle Gielan, journalist and wellness expert, suggests the following strategies to develop a stronger sense of self-efficacy:

1. Recall times in the past when you experienced success.  Set aside time to write down these successes.  What contributed to your success in that event?  How were you resourceful?  What was different about that time that made it so successful?

2. Seek out stories of people who have overcome adversity or experienced great success.  These stories can serve as powerful inspiration for your own life.  How did that person manage to face challenges and realize their goals?

The final message on building self-efficacy involves striving to remember that “confidence, effort, and persistence are more potent than innate ability” (Snyder & Lopez, 2005).  Rather than focusing excessively on “talent” or “skill” that you believe successful people to innately have, remember that success requires great perseverance and willingness to expend considerable effort.  How can you begin to build up a more powerful sense of self-efficacy in your own life?  Think of the next challenge that you face as an opportunity to prove to yourself that you are competent.

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Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Gielan, M. (2011, January 6). How to go from “i think i can” to “i know i can” [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/lights-camera-happiness/201101/how-go-i-think-i-can-i-know-i-can

Snyder, C.R. & S.J. Lopez. (2005). Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Featured image: 14er Portrait by Zach Dischner / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. SF on May 20, 2011 at 11:39 am


    I have “Principles of Behavior Modification” sitting on my desk. Great post!

    • Laura on May 20, 2011 at 12:26 pm

      So glad you enjoyed this post! Thanks for the comment and for checking out my site.

      • Stephane Diakite on May 7, 2012 at 2:29 am

        your post really helped me in research

        • Laura on May 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm

          I’m glad to hear that, Stephane! Thank you for visiting!

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