What Is… Self-Efficacy

Insights into psychology: Self-efficacy

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is self-efficacy.

Essentially, self-efficacy is our belief in our ability to get shit done. Or, for a more textbook definition, there’s this quote from psychologist Alfred Bandura: “Perceived self-efficacy refers to belief in one’s agentive capabilities, that one can produce given levels of attainment.”

Social cognitive theory

Bandura first proposed the concept of self-efficacy as part of his social cognitive theory. The theory includes five additional constructs:

  • reciprocal determinism of person and behaviour
  • behavioural capability (actual capacity to act)
  • observational learning
  • reinforcements from the environment related to the behaviour
  • expectations of a behaviour’s consequences

Locus of control

Self-efficacy is linked to an internal locus of control, meaning the individual believes that they have control over what happens to them. Highly self-efficacious individuals believe they have control over factors that make them successful, but they are more likely to attribute failures to external factors.


People who are more self-efficacious tend to be more resilient, as isolated failures don’t chip away at the overall sense of their own abilities. They are also more likely to use adaptive coping mechanisms in response to stressful or challenging situations, and less likely to use avoidance.

High self-efficacy is also a protective factor against anxiety and depression, and is linked to greater engagement in health promotion activities.


While self-esteem relates to our belief in our own worth, self-efficacy relates to functionality.  Strong self-esteem can improve self-efficacy. Low self-esteem can lead to the perception that tasks are more difficult than they actually are, which tends to increase levels of stress. Behaviour becomes more erratic and unpredictable. Barriers are more likely to lead to giving up, whereas people who are self-efficacious would tend to put in more effort.


One of the available measures is the General Self-Efficacy Scale. I scored a 17/40, but I think that’s less about my perception of my abilities and more to do with the fact that I know the limitations of my illness in certain types of situations. The scale asks about some of those kinds of situations, and doesn’t offer a way to account for diminished capacity. In the past, when I wasn’t depressed, I was generally quite self-efficacious. I didn’t let messing up get in the way of believing that overall, I was still capable.

Improving self-efficacy

Bandura’s theory identifies four ways for people to become more self-efficacious:

  • mastery experiences (being able to master new skills)
  • vicarious experiences through observing other people in our lives who are highly self-efficacious
  • verbal persuasion (being told you can do something)
  • emotional wellness and interpretations of physiological responses

In keeping with the last point, I think having mental illness well controlled is an important element in being self-efficacious.

How would you characterize your own self-efficacy?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

13 thoughts on “What Is… Self-Efficacy”

  1. Well, when I’m not knocked down by a migraine, I think I accomplish my goals.
    Again, a big list keeper. It helps me maitain keeping up with things I need or have to get done.
    Sorry if I read this incorrectly, but is what I just stated part of self-efficacy?

  2. I believe I have a problem with that. I went to dramatherapy yesterday, for the very first time and that came out as a big point to work on. I had my troubles in the past with it but I must say experiencing mental health difficulties on top of that, didn’t help. I believe it is like you said; when we experience more efficiency to cope with the mental challenges, that our self effiency and self- esteem will get a boost. Interesting post! I really like the Friday series 🙂

  3. This was an unbelievably helpful explanation for what I’m coming to realize is my greatest challenge: believing that I can get things done. At one point in my life, I would say I had a high sense of self-efficacy. This has definitely declined in the past decade or so. The only way I could really describe it to my friends is that I felt I lost my mojo. Your post gives me a way to actually articulate my struggles in a tangible way. And I so appreciate that you included ways to improve self-efficacy. Working on mastery, for one, makes complete sense to me. Thanks so much, Ashley. With gratitude, Kari

  4. I have a bit of a weird answer to this. I know that I do not cope well with stress, drama, change, or any sort of difficulty other than meaningless fun games and puzzles. So, I make a huge effort to avoid all that. Consequently, I feel great about my ability to handle my tightly controlled lifestyle.

  5. I would say my self efficacy goes up and down from day to day, but I think compared to a couple of years ago my self efficacy is a lot higher. But again, it does depend on how I’m feeling.

    Excellent read 🙂

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