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Self-Efficacy, Motivation and Our Explanatory Style


What exactly is self-efficacy? Self-efficacy is the extent in which we believe we are capable of succeeding in any given situation.  These beliefs according to the American psychologist Albert Bandura (1986) determine our thoughts, feelings and behaviours – our beliefs, therefore have a huge impact on our motivation.


Have you noticed, for example, how difficult it is to motivate yourself to do something you don’t believe is possible? Our beliefs also influence our expectations – we have to expect things of ourselves before we can achieve them.


We may want to change but wanting to change and actually committing to change are too completely different things – we may have an idea of some goal we wish to accomplish but if we don’t believe we are capable of achieving that goal then we are unlikely to find the motivation we need to succeed (makes sense, doesn’t it?).


Whether a person can find the motivation needed to achieve the goals they set for themselves is determined largely, though not exclusively, by their self-efficacy.


Those with a strong sense of self-efficacy:

  • View a problem as an interesting challenge to be mastered.
  • Are determined and commit themselves to activities and interests.
  • Focus on what they have achieved as opposed to the mistakes they have made.
  • Are resilient and so recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments.


Those with a weak sense of self-efficacy:

  • Avoid tasks that are challenging.
  • Believe that difficult tasks and situations are beyond their capabilities.
  • Focus on personal failings and negative outcomes.
  • Quickly lose confidence in their personal abilities.


Another question worth considering relates to the origin of self-efficacy – where does a person’s self-efficacy come from?

Self-efficacy, like all personal belief systems is learned – a person’s self-efficacy is formed initially in early childhood but can continue to grow and develop throughout life depending on whatever events, circumstances or situations a person experiences.

According to Bandura, there are four major sources of self-efficacy.

  1. Mastery Experiences

The most effective way of developing a strong sense of self-efficacy is through experiencing success, “I did that.  Well done me.”

  1. Social Modelling

Seeing other people succeed is also important particularly if those who are succeeding are understood to be similar to us, i.e. “If she can do it so can I.”

  1. Social Persuasion

Praise, encouragement and constructive criticism can help overcome issues of self-doubt.  This can come in the form of positive feedback from others but can also be a part of a person’s self-talk, i.e. the things we say to ourselves “I’m improving in so many different ways.” “I can do this.”

  1. Psychological Responses

Our own responses and emotional reactions to situations also play an important role in self-efficacy. Moods, emotional states, physical reactions, and stress levels can all have an impact on how a person feels about their personal capabilities in any given situation. A person who becomes extremely nervous before speaking in public may develop a weak sense of self-efficacy in this particularly area for example.  However, according to Bandura it is not the intensity of any emotional or physical reaction we may have that matters – it’s how we perceive and interpret the event.  How we explain events to ourselves is hugely significant and impactful – it can make all the difference in the world between whether the adversity we face will defeat us or whether we rise up against it and triumph.   The psychologist Martin Seligman (1990) also stressed the importance of the way we explain situations to ourselves through a process he called our explanatory style.  It is not so much adversity itself that knocks us back but how we explain difficult and challenging situations to ourselves – whether, for example, we interpret the experience as being something that we overcome or not.  Having an optimistic explanatory style is not only empowering but plays a critical role in the development and maintenance of self-efficacy.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1990). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Random House.

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