Henry Ford, the industrialist responsible for the assembly line, once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” What’s interesting is that what may seem like a simple motivational quote is actually a proven psychological theory that predicts human behavior and someone’s ability to accomplish their goals. (4)
Living with and managing a chronic illness can be challenging, and the beliefs you hold about your health and in your ability to overcome any obstacles, referred to as self-efficacy, can impact how well you manage your health and the likelihood you will achieve health-related goals. Continue reading to learn more about self-efficacy and how you can harness it to improve your health.
What is self-efficacy?
Self-efficacy, a theory developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, describes an individual’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task or succeed in the face of adversity. (4) It is a belief that can impact how you feel about yourself and whether or not you are able to accomplish your goals, whether they be personal, professional, or health-related. (4)(6)
Individuals with a strong sense of self-efficacy tend to:
- Bounce back quickly from setbacks
- Commit to their interests and activities
- Develop a strong interest in the tasks or activities they engage in
- Perceive problems or obstacles as opportunities to learn and grow (4)
Individuals with a weak sense of self-efficacy tend to:
- Avoid challenging tasks
- Believe they are not capable of completing difficult tasks or facing obstacles
- Focus on failures and negative outcomes
- Easily lose confidence in their personal abilities (4)
4 elements to building self-efficacy
Self-efficacy begins to develop in early childhood through engaging and succeeding in various experiences and situations. It continues to develop throughout life as individuals develop new skills. Bandura’s theory encompasses four key elements that increase self efficacy:
Mastery is considered to be the most impactful driver of self-efficacy. Mastery experiences refer to the experiences gained by taking on a challenge and succeeding. (11) For example, someone who is new to exercising, successfully going to the gym three times a week as they intended is considered a mastery experience. Successfully achieving this goal reinforces the idea that they are capable of making time in their busy schedule to work on their health.
Vicarious learning, also referred to as social modeling, refers to seeing others successfully completing the task or goal we wish to accomplish. Seeing other people who are similar to ourselves succeed makes us believe that we also have the ability to do so. (4) An example of this would be seeing someone with a schedule as busy as yours make it to the gym regularly. Social modeling can lead a person to believe, “if they can do it, so can I!”
Social persuasion refers to the idea that individuals can be persuaded to believe that they have the skills required to succeed. Meaning, words of encouragement can help you overcome your doubts and put in the effort required to actually succeed. (4) An example of this could be your spouse, close friend, or your healthcare provider telling you that you have the ability to make the time to exercise regularly.
Psychological responses such as emotions, physical reactions, and stress levels, can all impact performance and thus self-efficacy. (4) For example, if someone has never exercised and is overweight, they may experience anxiety going to the gym for the first time. This fear and anxiety has the potential to prevent the individual from going to the gym at all.
However, according to Bandura, it is not the emotions and physical sensations that impact behavior, but it is the way those reactions are perceived and interpreted. (4) This means that being able to recognize and deal with emotions and physical sensations, and pushing through them, improves a person’s belief in their personal qualities when dealing with adversity. An example of this is changing your thoughts from “I feel too nervous to go to the gym for the first time – I’ll surely make a fool of myself” to “I feel nervous to go to the gym, but that’s probably normal because it’s my first time.”
Self-efficacy and health behavior change
Self-efficacy relates to health behavior because an individual’s level of self-efficacy predicts in part the adoption and maintenance of health-promoting behaviors. (4)(14) Health behaviors that have been found to be correlated with one’s level of self-efficacy include:
- Engaging in physical activity
- Eating healthy foods
- Managing chronic conditions
- Minimizing alcohol consumption
- Quitting smoking (1)(2)(5)(6)(8)(10)(14)
How to enhance self-efficacy
Follow these tips to incorporate the four elements of self-efficacy in your daily routine if you’re looking to improve self-efficacy.
Start small to set yourself up for success
If you are new to exercising, start by adding a walk to your daily routine. If you have never cooked before, start out with simple recipes with minimal ingredients. Accomplishing these small goals will reinforce the idea that you are capable of making lifestyle changes and help set you up for success.
Join a support group or find a mentor
Research has shown that having peer support and seeing others succeed improves self-efficacy, self-management, and health outcomes. (9)(12) Joining a support group, taking part in a group exercise class, or finding a mentor or coach can keep you accountable and support you in accomplishing your goals.
Surround yourself with people who motivate you
Bandura’s theory states that people can be persuaded to believe they have the ability to succeed, which pushes them to put in the effort required to accomplish their goal. (15) Having a strong support system can therefore give you the push needed to succeed.
Pay attention to your thoughts
Your ability to successfully recognize and reframe your emotions and physical sensations, such as stress, improves how you feel about your ability to deal with a stressful situation. Although it can be difficult, pushing yourself to complete a task or goal despite feelings of stress and anxiety can help you accomplish your goals.
The bottom line
Self-efficacy theory is a theory developed by psychologist Albert Bandura that refers to an individual’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task or succeed in the face of adversity. It’s a powerful belief that predicts human behavior. Individuals with a strong sense of self-efficacy are more likely to take on new challenges, stick to their commitments, and put in the effort required to meet their goals. Individuals with a low sense of self-efficacy believe that they cannot be successful and are therefore less likely to put in the effort to meet their goals.
You can improve self-efficacy by taking on small challenges and succeeding, seeing others succeed or having a role model, receiving words of encouragement from others, and reexamining negative emotions or thoughts.
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