Research Brief: The Self-Efficacy Equation

Dr. B talks breaks down Stanford professor and psychologist, Albert Bandura’s, findings and explains why it’s so crucial to confidence and how you can help.

In 1977, Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura put forward a theory of behavior change to explain how beliefs we have about our capabilities impact the actions we take—he called it self-efficacy.

Our self-efficacy beliefs influence the goals we set and how much effort we put into pursuing those goals. Although we usually describe self-efficacy in general terms (e.g., “I’m confident I can work through difficult situations), it’s actually pretty dependent on which skills and situation we’re talking about. For example, I might have high self-efficacy in my guitar skills when playing alone, but low self-efficacy in my skills performing in front of others.

In fact, there’s research measuring all sorts of different self-efficacy beliefs and their association with important outcomes. Emotional self-efficacy is associated with managing anxiety, and lower rates of bullying and victimization; academic self-efficacy predicts GPA; empathetic self-efficacy is positively associated with prosocial behavior; and social self-efficacy is positively correlated with self-esteem and negatively correlated with social phobia.

For kids, self-efficacy beliefs begin to develop as they seek to control their environment (as anyone who has ever had a toddler can attest to). Environments that respond to a child’s actions promote self-efficacy, encouraging exploration and increasing agency – which means from an early age parents have an important part to play in helping children build confidence through supporting self-efficacy.

The good news is that self-efficacy (like confidence) is not a trait, and there are skills and experiences we can give our kids to help them improve.

To level up self-efficacy, there are five primary sources to choose from: mastery performances, vicarious experience, visualization, verbal persuasion, and physiological states.

  • Mastery performance

    likely the most powerful source of self-efficacy, it means having had previous experience of success, particularly when challenged.

    For example: I’m nervous about performing in our school play, but I did it last year and it went great, so I know I can do it again.

  • Vicarious experience 

    seeing others model success, particularly when you have no (or bad) experience and the model is similar to you in ability.

    For example: I’ve never given a speech before, but my best friend just did a good job with her public speaking, so I probably can too.

  • Visualization 

    imagining yourself behaving effectively in a hypothetical situation, particularly helps with contingency planning (if ‘x’ happens, then I’ll ‘y’).

    For example: If they pass me the ball in the corner I’ll shoot like this, but if I’m closer I’ll go for a layup like this – now I know what success looks like for me and I’ll be ready for anything. 

  • Verbal persuasion

    encouragement and feedback that improves performance, particularly when specific or directive, and from a credible source.

    For example: My cousin has been coming to this camp for years and said they’re sure that I’ll make friends if I volunteer for the cooking crew – they know me well, so I believe them.

  • Physiological states 

    our response to emotions when facing the task at hand; fearful or stressful states may increase heart rate or muscle tension, undermining efficacy; whereas energizing or calming states improve performance.

    For example: It’s hard to play the saxophone well when I’m nervous, but if I take a few deep breaths first to fill my lungs and stop my fingers from shaking I know that I’ll do a good job.

Taking stock of those sources, it’s easy to see how as parents and educators, we can help students to recognize when they’ve overcome a big challenge, point out how similar kids have had success, paint a vivid picture of what success looks like, give specific encouragement and guidance, and help kids manage their emotions. However, some of the sources might be more challenging to utilize than others.

In particular, we identified that visualizing success was a source of self-efficacy that wasn’t as easy to support, so one of our first tools, The Visualizer, uses AI to create a personalized story where kids can see themselves overcoming obstacles by using their own strengths, and alongside important people in their lives.

Help the kids in your life to build confidence by zeroing in on sources of self-efficacy in situations that are important to them. In the meantime, we’ll keep creating new tools like the Visualizer so that you’ll have the resources you need to make a difference.

Dr. Brian Burkhard

Director of Research Evaluation, Legends Lab

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