Skyler has been wanting to “get healthy” for years, but has just never known where to start. Nobody in Skyler’s life had ever given a second thought to what they ate or to exercise, but Skyler just wasn’t feeling their best and wanted to make some life changes. Skyler was scared and was uncertain whether they were even capable of doing this.
In this vignette, Sklyer has a classic case of low self-efficacy regarding their ability to engage in healthy behaviors. Let’s take a deeper look at what self-efficacy is, where it comes from, and how one can improve their self-efficacy.
What is Self-Efficacy?
Albert Bandura coined the term self-efficacy to describe an individual’s belief in their capability to succeed in a particular area of their life (Bandura, 1977). Whereas self-esteem is a global feeling about ourselves generally, self-efficacy is more specific to a given task or subject area. It is incredibly common to have high levels of self-efficacy in one or more areas of our life and have low self-efficacy in another. For example, Skyler is so confident and really knows what they are doing in their teaching job, but doesn’t feel so great about their ability to exercise or cook healthy foods.
Self-efficacy impacts our motivation levels, perseverance in the face of adversity, and general goal setting. If we have high levels of self-efficacy, we are more likely to feel motivated to perform that behavior. Conversely, we tend to avoid things we don’t think we are capable of doing in order to protect our self-image. Additionally, when things inevitably go wrong while doing a task, we are also more likely to keep going and push through when we have high levels of self-efficacy. If our self-efficacy is low, that is when we are likely to procrastinate, make excuses, or even give up altogether. Finally, we are more likely to set higher goals when we have high self-efficacy, which contributes to greater performance. When we have low self-efficacy, we tend to set the bar low and not surpass that goal even when we meet it. For example, Skyler has really been struggling with motivation for the last few years even though the idea of implementing healthy behaviors has been there for a while.
What happens psychologically before we make a health-related behavior change? The theory of planned behavior, often used to explain health-related behavior change, suggests that it results from our intentions, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control (Ajzen, 1991).
- Intentions: Essentially, we first have to make a plan and/or have a desire to engage in the behavior. We have an idea of how much effort we are willing to exert and how hard we are willing to try, and these intentions impact how well we actually “perform” that behavior.
- Subjective Norms: We also are influenced by our perceptions of how much pressure there is to engage in the behavior. If the people around us are pushing us or sending messages that we should do something, that increases the likelihood that we will perform that behavior.
- Perceived Behavioral Control: Finally, the amount of control we believe that we have over the behavior also influences our decision to engage in a behavior. If we believe that no matter what we do we will not be able to control the outcome, we are less likely to try to do that thing.
What do these three factors have in common? Self-efficacy! Each of these components is influenced by our personal levels of self-efficacy for that particular behavior. With regard to intentions, we may not even consider something as an option if we have very poor self-efficacy. The amount that subjective norms make us feel pressured to do something depends on whether we believe we are capable of it in the first place. Finally, the amount of control we believe we have over something is directly related to our beliefs about our capability to do that behavior. In essence, how much we believe in our ability to engage in a particular behavior influences us at every step along the way in our decision to try.
High levels of self-efficacy are one of the greatest predictors of success in weight-loss programs (Young et al., 2015), improvements in nutritional choices (Anderson et al., 2007), medication adherence (Náfrádi et al., 2017), and adherence to exercise programs (Picha & Howell, 2018). Therefore, we know that improving one’s self-efficacy is a critical component to making positive changes regarding one’s health.
Where Does Self-Efficacy Come From?
For most of us, the development of self-efficacy happens (or doesn’t) outside our conscious awareness. According to Bandura (1977), there are four primary sources of self-efficacy.
- Mastery experiences: Our past successes in life can play a large role in our beliefs about how we will do in the future. Bandura suggests this is one of the most powerful sources of self-efficacy because it is authentic; if we have done it before, we know that we can do it again. In Skyler’s case, they had never had any personal experiences with healthy behaviors, let alone “success.”
- Vicarious Experiences: Seeing other people in our environment succeed at something improves our self-efficacy. Specifically, if we perceive ourselves to be similar to those other people, we are more likely to also believe we are capable. When we see positive role models in our life, we are more likely to transfer some of the positive beliefs onto ourself. In the case of Sklyer, no one in their family had ever intentionally engaged in or promoted health-related behaviors, so they didn’t even know what this looks like.
- Social Persuasion: The feedback we receive from others can be powerful; in particular, when others tell us we are good at or capable of something, we start to believe that ourselves. Encouragement from loved ones in our life can play an important role in our beliefs about our ability to do something. For Skyler, because no one in their life ever gave them feedback about exercise, they weren’t certain they even could do it!
- Emotional & Physiological States: When we do things that are new, we inherently get a bit stressed. This causes both an emotional and physiological reaction, which can be interpreted in many ways. When the stress gets interpreted as evidence that we are incapable of performing the task, we are likely to have lower self-efficacy. Similarly, when we are struggling with mental health, it can also be harder to believe in ourselves. Skyler gets so nervous anytime they even think about going for a run, so they conclude “I must not be able to do it!”
5 Tips for Improving Self-Efficacy
So, if it is so important, how do we even build our self-efficacy, particularly as adults? Here are a few tips for finding ways to increase your self-efficacy.
- Accurate Goal Setting: The outcome we are striving for is very important. According to the theory of planned behavior, our levels of perceived behavioral control is important for making a change in behavior (Ajzen, 1991). If we set a goal that we feel we have little control over (like obtaining a particular body shape, for example), then we are likely to experience low self-efficacy, not set as high of goals, and are likely to achieve our goal. Therefore, setting goals that are process- rather than outcome-based can be very helpful. For example, for Skyler, I would encourage them to change their goal of obtaining large glutes (outcome-based), that they might aim instead for doing glute-focused workouts 2 times per week (process-based).
- Peer Modeling: Because we learn so much from watching others do things, it is really important to surround yourself with good models. There is some research that suggests the the most learning occurs from models who struggle but overcome difficulties in their own process (Meichenbaum, 1971). Therefore, it can be important to surround yourself with people who you perceive to be similar to you, but are more advanced or accomplished in the arena you are striving for. Because Skyler’s family and current friend group are not interested in exercise and healthy eating, I might encourage them to seek out groups at their local gym to begin developing relationships with.
- Seek Feedback: Along the same lines, finding people who can cheer you on is incredibly important. Many of us remember the first teacher or coach who really believed in us and, for many, that transfers some confidence onto us. Find someone you trust and who has knowledge about your goals who can help give you encouraging and growth-oriented feedback along the way! Skyler was able to find a personal trainer and dietitian to work with and get positive feedback along the way on their health journey.
- Make Your Own Health Choices: A lot of times, people choose fitness programs or meal plans that they dread, and this takes away all autonomy (and joy) in the process. Finding a path that allows flexibility and choice on a daily basis can be incredibly important for sticking with a goal. Honestly, this is one of the reasons I have always loved Fitness Blender — there are so many options and I can do (or eat) whatever I am feeling on any given day. Skyler focused initially on trying out a variety of new foods and training types in order to find things they like and be able to exercise autonomy in their health journey.
- Start Small and Grow: Because one source of self-efficacy is past success, putting yourself in low-stakes situations where you can succeed is a good way to begin building your self-efficacy. After you achieve something small, gradually increase the difficulty and you will continue building your belief in yourself along the way! Skyler decided to start their cardiovascular exercises with short walks (15 minutes), grew to doing longer walks (45 minutes), and eventually started adding in some HIIT workouts.
Though our self-efficacy often develops outside our awareness when we are growing up, that doesn’t mean we can’t do things to improve it throughout our lives. I would love to hear any experiences you've had that helped you build your self-efficacy!
Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 50(2), 179-211.
Anderson, E. S., Winett, R. A., & Wojcik, J. R. (2007). Self-regulation, self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and social support: social cognitive theory and nutrition behavior. Annals of behavioral medicine, 34(3), 304-312.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191.
Meichenbaum, D. H. (1971). Examination of model characteristics in reducing avoidance behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17, 298-307.
Náfrádi, L., Nakamoto, K., & Schulz, P. J. (2017). Is patient empowerment the key to promote adherence? A systematic review of the relationship between self-efficacy, health locus of control and medication adherence. PLOS One, 12(10), 1-23.
Picha, K. J. & Howell, D. M. (2018). A model to increase rehabilitation adherence to home exercise programmes in patients with varying levels of self-efficacy. Musculoskeletal Care, 16, 233-237.
Young, M. D., Plotnikoff, R. C., Collins, C. E., Callister, R., & Morgan, P. J. (2015). A test of social cognitive theory to explain men’s physical activity during a gender-tailored weight loss program. American Journal of Men’s Health, 10(6), 176-187.