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You Can If You Think You Can: 4 Ways to Build Self-Efficacy

You Can If You Think You Can: 4 Ways to Build Self-Efficacy

When you face an obstacle or a setback, do you sit back, throw your hands up, and cease to fight for your goals or do you rise to the challenge that has come your way? Are you like the little engine that could constantly telling yourself, “I think I can, I think I can!” or do you allow self-doubt to control you? Do you persevere through difficulty believing that something is better on the other side or do you feel you are incapable of achieving success?

“They are able because they think they are able.”
— Virgil

Questions like these are central to our understanding of self-efficacy. Who we become and what we accomplish in life are largely a result of what we choose to believe in regards to our ability. Pop psychology teaches that belief in one’s self matters. However, it is not just a statement randomly applied in self-help books and pep talks. Psychologist Albert Bandura in his social cognitive theory, defined self-efficacy as the belief a person has in his ability to succeed at a task or to achieve a goal.

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Believe in your ability

According to Bandura, our attitudes, cognition, beliefs, and abilities are central to the system of the self. This self-system helps to determine how we perceive situations and other people. It also helps us to perceive how we will behave, respond, or react to these different situations. Self-efficacy then is a part of this system in that it is our belief in our abilities to take a certain course of action in order to reach a desired result or goal.

Since Bandura published his groundbreaking discovery in the form of the paper, “Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change,” the subject has become highly studied and used among psychologists and educators as a way to demonstrate its impact on mental states, behavioral process, and even human motivation. All people have a goal or dream they want to achieve in life, but “easier said than done” as they say. Self-efficacy shows how we are able to achieve these goals.

Make the effort

Self-efficacy affects behavior choices, motivation, thought patterns, situational responses, choices in behavior, productivity at work or in academics, as well as one’s idea about destiny. People with a high level of self-efficacy view challenges and problems as opportunities to learn and grow whereas people with a low level of self-efficacy aim to avoid problems. Those with a high level of self-efficacy are confident in their ability to achieve while those with a low level of self-efficacy lack a good deal of confidence, are unsure of themselves, and doubt their abilities.

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People with a high level of self-efficacy are more likely to make an effort to complete a project and persist through until it is finalized than those with a low level of self-efficacy. Bandar also believed that self-efficacy has a strong correlation to one’s worldview as well. People with a high level of self-efficacy believe that they are in control of their lives and that their own choices and action determine the outcome of their lives. On the other hand, people with a low level of self-efficacy see their lives as outside of their control, in the hands of someone else, or completely uncontrollable by anyone.

While we stop growing physically and over time, some of our beliefs come set in concrete, self-efficacy does not really end. It evolves throughout the various stages of life. Recently in a developmental psychology, we discussed self-efficacy and how it can be developed in our lives. Here are 4 ways we can build our level of self-efficacy for greater achievement:

1. Build one success on top of another.

All successful people started out small. Don’t despise the small success, the small achievements or accomplishments. These set the foundation for what is to come next. Success is not automatic. It begins with the belief that you can be and then taking one small step at a time to get there. Every little task you are faced with, mastery its process, do it to the best of you ability and allow yourself to grow with it no matter how difficult it is.

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2. Observe the endurance and success of other people.

Watching other people complete a task or reach a goal successfully is an important point of self-efficacy and also serves subtly as a motivator. You’ll think to yourself, “If he can do it, so can I” or “If she can get there from where she was, so can I.” Seeing other people success through effort raises the belief in ourselves that we too can make an effort to succeed as well.

3. Surround yourself with people who believe you can succeed.

Social persuasion is powerful. Surround yourself with people who believe you can succeed. There are some people who will even persuade you to believe that you are capable of succeeding. Sometimes, they come in the form of a parent, a coach, a teacher, a mentor, or even a close friends. Verbal affirmation from other people can help in overcoming self-doubt and focusing on putting your best foot forward.

4. Work through your own psychological responses

Our own responses and reactions to situations are developed largely by unseen psychological processes. Emotional states, stress levels, and moods impact how we view ourselves and what we believe about our abilities. By learning how to minimize stress (not by avoiding the situation or challenge) and increase mood to a positive level, you can improve your level of self-efficacy.

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“Ability is what gives you the opportunity; belief is what gets you there.”
— Apollo

Research has shown that self-efficacy is a much stronger predictor of outcomes in behavior and achievement than other aspects of motivation. My professor in development psychology, Dr. Chad Magnuson said, “success is not just a matter of capability, but really a matter of how capable we think we are.”

Featured photo credit: Azrul Aziz via unsplash.com

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Daniella Whyte

Psychology Researcher

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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