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18.4: Self-Regulation and Self-Efficacy

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    Self-regulation and self-efficacy are two elements of Bandura’s theory that rely heavily on cognitive processes. They represent an individual’s ability to control their behavior through internal reward or punishment, in the case of self-regulation, and their beliefs in their ability to achieve desired goals as a result of their own actions, in the case of self-efficacy. Bandura never rejects the influence of external rewards or punishments, but he proposes that including internal, self-reinforcement and self-punishment expands the potential for learning:

    …Theories that explain human behavior as solely the product of external rewards and punishments present a truncated image of people because they possess self-reactive capacities that enable them to exercise some control over their own feelings, thoughts, and actions. Behavior is therefore regulated by the interplay of self-generated and external sources of influence… (pg. 129; Bandura, 1977)

    Self-regulation is a general term that includes both self-reinforcement and self-punishment. Self-reinforcement works primarily through its motivational effects. When an individual sets a standard of performance for themselves, they judge their behavior and determine whether or not it meets the self-determined criteria for reward. Since many activities do not have absolute measures of success, the individual often sets their standards in relative ways. For example, a weight-lifter might keep track of how much total weight they lift in each training session, and then monitor their improvement over time or as each competition arrives. Although competitions offer the potential for external reward, the individual might still set a personal standard for success, such as being satisfied only if they win at least one of the individual lifts. The standards that an individual sets for themselves can be learned through modeling. This can create problems when models are highly competent, much more so than the observer is capable of performing (such as learning the standards of a world-class athlete). Children, however, seem to be more inclined to model the standards of low-achieving or moderately competent models, setting standards that are reasonably within their own reach (Bandura, 1977). According to Bandura, the cumulative effect of setting standards and regulating one’s own performance in terms of those standards can lead to judgments about one’s self. Within a social learning context, negative self-concepts arise when one is prone to devalue oneself, whereas positive self-concepts arise from a tendency to judge oneself favorably (Bandura, 1977). Overall, the complexity of this process makes predicting the behavior of an individual rather difficult, and behavior often deviates from social norms in ways that would not ordinarily be expected. However, this appears to be the case in a variety of cultures, suggesting that it is indeed a natural process for people (Bandura & Walters, 1963).

    As noted above, “perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (Bandura, 1997). The desire to control our circumstances in life seems to have been with us throughout history. In ancient times, when people knew little about the world, they prayed in the hope that benevolent gods would help them and/or protect them from evil gods. Elaborate rituals were developed in the hope or belief that the gods would respond to their efforts and dedication. As we learned more about our world and how it works, we also learned that we can have a significant impact on it. Most importantly, we can have a direct effect on our immediate personal environment, especially with regard to personal relationships. What motivates us to try influencing our environment is specific ways is the belief that we can, indeed, make a difference in a direction we want. Thus, research has focused largely on what people think about their efficacy, rather than on their actual ability to achieve their goals (Bandura, 1997).

    Self-efficacy has been a popular topic for research, and Bandura’s book Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (1997) is some 600 pages long. We will address two key issues on this fascinating topic: the relationships between (1) efficacy beliefs and outcome expectancies and (2) self-efficacy and self-esteem. In any situation, one has beliefs about one’s ability to influence the situation, and yet those beliefs are typically balanced against realistic expectations that change can occur. Each side of the equation can have both negative and positive qualities. Suppose, as a student, you are concerned about the rising cost of a college education, and you would like to challenge those rising costs. You may believe that there is nothing you can do (negative) and tuition and fees will inevitably increase (negative). This dual negative perspective leads to resignation and apathy, certainly not a favorable situation. But what if you believe you can change the college’s direction (positive), and that the college can cut certain costs in order to offset the need for higher tuition (positive). Now you are likely to engage the college community in productive discussions, and this may lead to personal satisfaction (Bandura, 1997). In the first scenario, you are not likely to do anything, in the second scenario you will most likely be highly motivated to act, even energized as you work toward productive changes. Of course, there are two other possible scenarios. You may believe there is nothing you can do (negative), but that change is possible (positive). In this case, you are likely to devalue yourself, perhaps feeling depressed about your own inability to accomplish good. Conversely, you may believe there is something you can do (positive), but that external forces will make change difficult or impossible (negative). This may lead some people to challenge the system in spite of their lack of expected change, resulting in protests and other forms of social activism (Bandura, 1997). Since all of these scenarios are based on beliefs and expectations, not on the unknown eventual outcome that will occur, it becomes clear that what we think about our ability to perform in various situations, as well as our actual expectations of the consequences of those actions, has both complex and profound effects on our motivation to engage in a particular behavior or course of action.

    As for self-efficacy and self-esteem, these terms are often used interchangeably, and on the surface that might seem appropriate. Wouldn’t we feel good about ourselves if we believed in our abilities to achieve our goals? In fact, self-efficacy and self-esteem are entirely different:

    …There is no fixed relationship between beliefs about one’s capabilities and whether one likes or dislikes oneself. Individuals may judge themselves hopelessly inefficacious in a given activity without suffering any loss of self-esteem whatsoever, because they do not invest their self-worth in that activity. (pg. 11; Bandura, 1997)

    For example, my family was active in the Korean martial art Taekwondo. Taekwondo emphasizes powerful kicks. Because I suffer from degenerative joint disease in both hips, there are certain kicks I simply can’t do, and I don’t do any of the kicks particularly well. But I accept that, and focus my attention on areas where I am successful, such as forms and helping to teach the white belt class. Likewise, Bandura notes that his complete inefficacy in ballroom dancing does not lead him into bouts of self-devaluation (Bandura, 1997). So, though it may improve our self-esteem to have realistic feelings of self-efficacy in challenging situations, there is not necessarily any corresponding loss of self-esteem when we acknowledge our weaknesses. And even positive self-efficacy might not lead to higher self-esteem when a task is simple or unpleasant. To cite Bandura’s example, someone might be very good at evicting people from their homes when they can’t pay their rent or mortgage, but that skill might not lead to positive feelings of self-esteem. This concept was the basis for the classic story A Christmas Carol, featuring the character Ebenezer Scrooge (Charles Dickens, 1843/1994).

    The Development of Self-Efficacy

    Young children have little understanding of what they can and cannot do, so the development of realistic self-efficacy is a very important process:

    …Very young children lack knowledge of their own capabilities and the demands and potential hazards of different courses of action. They would repeatedly get themselves into dangerous predicaments were it not for the guidance of others. They can climb to high places, wander into rivers or deep pools, and wield sharp knives before they develop the necessary skills for managing such situations safely…Adult watchfulness and guidance see young children through this early formative period until they gain sufficient knowledge of what they can do and what different situations require in the way of skills. (pg. 414; Bandura, 1986)

    During infancy, the development of perceived causal efficacy, in other words the perception that one has affected the world by one’s own actions, appears to be an important aspect of developing a sense of self. As the infant interacts with its environment, the infant is able to cause predictable events, such as the sound that accompanies shaking a rattle. The understanding that one’s own actions can influence the environment is something Bandura refers to as personal agency, the ability to act as an agent of change in one’s own world. The infant also begins to experience that certain events affect models differently than the child. For example, if a model touches a hot stove it does not hurt the infant, so the infant begins to recognize their uniqueness, their actual existence as an individual. During this period, interactions with the physical environment may be more important than social interactions, since the physical environment is more predictable, and therefore easier to learn about (Bandura, 1986, 1997). Quickly, however, social interaction becomes highly influential.

    Not only does the child learn a great deal from the family, but as they grow peers become increasingly important. As the child’s world expands, peers bring with them a broadening of self-efficacy experiences. This can have both positive and negative consequences. Peers who are most experienced and competent can become important models of behavior. However, if a child perceives themselves as socially inefficacious, but does develop self-efficacy in coercive, aggressive behavior, then that child is likely to become a bully. In the midst of this effort to learn socially acceptable behavior, most children also begin attending school, where the primary focus is on the development of cognitive efficacy. For many children, unfortunately, the academic environment of school is a challenge. Children quickly learn to rank themselves (grades help, both good and bad), and children who do poorly can lose the sense of self-efficacy that is necessary for continued effort at school. According to Bandura, it is important that educational practices focus not only on the content they provide, but also on what they do to children’s beliefs about their abilities (Bandura, 1986, 1997).

    As children continue through adolescence toward adulthood, they need to assume responsibility for themselves in all aspects of life. They must master many new skills, and a sense of confidence in working toward the future is dependent on a developing sense of self-efficacy supported by past experiences of mastery. In adulthood, a healthy and realistic sense of self-efficacy provides the motivation necessary to pursue success in one’s life. Poorly equipped adults, wracked with self-doubt, often find life stressful and depressing. Even psychologically healthy adults must eventually face the realities of aging, and the inevitable decline in physical status. There is little evidence, however, for significant declines in mental states until very advanced old age. In cultures that admire youth, there may well be a tendency for the aged to lose their sense of self-efficacy and begin an inexorable decline toward death. But in societies that promote self-growth throughout life, and who admire elders for their wisdom and experience, there is potential for aged individuals to continue living productive and self-fulfilling lives (Bandura, 1986, 1997).

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Self-efficacy refers to our beliefs regarding our actual abilities, and self-esteem refers to how we feel about ourselves. What are you good at? Do others agree that you are good at that skill? When you find yourself trying to do something that you are NOT good at, does it disappoint you (i.e., lower your self-esteem)?

    Behavior Modification

    In Principles of Behavior Modification (Bandura, 1969), Bandura suggests that behavioral approaches to psychological change, whether in clinical settings or elsewhere, have a distinct advantage over many of the other theories that have arisen in psychology. Whereas psychological theories often arise first, become popular as approaches to psychotherapy, but then fail to withstand proper scientific validation, behavioral approaches have a long history of rigorous laboratory testing. Thus, behavioral techniques are often validated first, and then prove to be applicable in clinical settings. Indeed, behavioral and cognitive approaches to psychotherapy are typically well respected amongst psychotherapists (though some might consider their range somewhat limited).

    Bandura made several points regarding the application of social learning theory to behaviorally-oriented psychotherapy. For example, Bandura notes that the labeling of psychological disorders, indeed the definition of what constitutes abnormal behavior, is made within a social context. While it has been demonstrated that common categories of mental illness are seen throughout a wide variety of cultures (Murphy, 1976), we still view those with psychological disorders based on sociocultural norms and, in the case of too many observers, with unreasonable prejudice. Bandura also opposed the medical model of categorizing and treating psychopathology, believing that the desire to identify and utilize medications has hindered the advancement of applying appropriate psychotherapies. The application of an appropriate therapy involves issues of ethical concern and goal-setting. Therapy cannot be successful, according to Bandura, if it does not have clear goals characterized in terms of observable behaviors. Choosing goals means that one must make value judgments. In making these decisions it is important that the client and the therapist share similar values (or at least that the therapist work with values appropriate for their client), and that the therapist does not try to impose their own values on the client (Bandura, 1969).

    Overall, Bandura presents behavioral approaches to psychotherapy as non-judgmental applications of learning principles to problematic behavior, behavior that is not to be viewed as psychological “illness:”

    …From a social-learning perspective, behaviors that may be detrimental to the individual or that depart widely from accepted social and ethical norms are considered not as manifestations of an underlying pathology but as ways, which the person has learned, of coping with environmental and self-imposed demands. (pg. 62; Bandura, 1969)

    This page titled 18.4: Self-Regulation and Self-Efficacy is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.