A clarification of the meaning of ‘self-efficacy’

6 min read

This post is a response the Andrew Davis’s healthy scepticism about the concept of self-efficacy. This was in response to a recent post:


So what I intend to do here is clarify its origins and meaning drawing on the work of Albert Bandura .

Andrew’s first question suggests that self-efficacy is equivalent to a pupil believing they will be successful in a test. That the pupil’s ‘beliefs’ may be inaccurate. I responded by saying that this illustrates the difference between confidence and self-efficacy.  On this Bandura says the following:

It should be noted that the construct of self-efficacy differs from the colloquial term “confidence.” Confidence is a nondescript term that refers to strength of belief but does not necessarily specify what the certainty is about. I can be supremely confident that I will fail at an endeavor. Perceived self-efficacy refers to belief in one’s agentive capabilities, that one can produce given levels of attainment. A self-efficacy assessment, therefore, includes both an affirmation of a capability level and the strength of that belief. Confidence is a catchword rather than a construct embedded in a theoretical system. Advances in a field are best achieved by constructs that fully reflect the phenomena of interest and are rooted in a theory that specifies their determinants, mediating processes, and multiple effects. Theory-based constructs pay dividends in understanding and operational guidance. The terms used to characterize personal agency, therefore, represent more than merely lexical preferences .

This makes an important point about the meaning of self-efficacy – “it is a construct embedded in a theoretical system” in contrast with confidence as a “colloquial term” which refers to the strength of belief without necessarily identifying the nature of the task. However, this was not quite the point that Andrew was making. The question he raises is, should mathematics self-efficacy be defined as the true belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems?

To respond to this, to address the distinction between the true belief an individual has in their capacity to solve mathematics problems and mathematics self-efficacy. Bandura defines self-efficacy as follows:

Percieved slef-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments 

On the face of it, given Bandura’s definition of self-efficacy, they would appear to be equivalent. But there are subtle differences. Andrew’s definition refers to outcomes alone, whereas Bandura refers to beliefs about personal capability. This is a subtle difference but important and probably best elucidated by looking at the underlying theory.

Origins of self-efficacy: agency and control

The problem that Bandura is addressing in the introduction of self-efficacy is concerned with human agency and control. Agency is concerned with the power, knowledge and disposition an individual has in exercising the right to chose the way to act. Control is related to this, it is the motivation and drive a person has to have agency in their lives.

The striving for control over life circumstances permeates almost everything people do throughout the life course because it provides innumerable personal and social benefits. Uncertainty in important matters is highly unsettling .

Approaching this from social science disciplines other than psychology this might not seem such a big deal. Sociology readily constructs agency and control, it is implicit within the field to consider the impact of the social word on personal freedom. Similarly in anthropology where the effects of culture and society and a key part of theory in this discipline. Yet in psychology, agency, in reference to the social world, is given little attention. B. F. Skinner, for example, considered the individual as having limited agency, behaviours are responses to environmental responses. In behaviourism, there is an absence of ‘self’ or ‘control’.

Another important idea underpinning self-efficacy is the notion of ‘intentionality’: people generate courses of action to suit given purposes .

Intentionality and agency raise the fundamental question of how people actuate the cerebral processes that characterize the exercise of agency and lead to the realization of particular intentions  .

So we can see in this how the concept of self-efficacy is different from a self-assessment of how well the individual will perform. Self-efficacy is concerned with agentic action and the construction of a course of action in response to situations.

…the making of choices is aided by reflective thought, through which self-influence is largely exercised. People exert some influence over what they do by the alternatives they consider .

The multidimensionality of self-efficacy

Self-efficacy represents the deliberative processes preceding action. It involves the consideration of alternatives courses of action and decisions about how to proceed. Going beyond this, Bandura locates self-efficacy as a self-concept as a self-assessment. But “self-efficacy beliefs are not simply inert predictors of future performance” . What distinguishes self-efficacy from the ‘inert’ predictor or perceived capability is the multidimensionality of self-efficacy belief systems.

Efficacy beliefs should be measured in terms of particularized judgements of capability that may vary across realms of activity, under different levels of task demands within a given activity demand, and under different situational circumstances .

In attempting to measure self-efficacy, we are not simply asking whether the individual is going to be successful in a particular activity. It requires careful assessment using gradations of task demands within the domain of concern. It also requires a clear definition of the domain of activity and a careful conceptual analysis of the aspects, knowledge, skills and dispositions required.

I hope, I have illustrated here some the key differences between perceived capability in respect to performance in a particular context and the multidimensional multi-faceted concept of self-efficacy. When measured appropriately, self-efficacy is a strong predictor of performance but is not a specifically an assessment of personal capability.


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

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