Self-Efficacy: How Supply Permits Demand

“Give the work to the busy man,” my mother used to say. It made sense. A busy man (or woman, in her case) had momentum and a can-do spirit.

The technical name for a can-do spirit is self-efficacy, a belief that you are capable of being effective. Psychologist Albert Bandura, who coined the term, attributes this can-do spirit to four sources. Chief among them is “mastery experience,” a kind of proven wherewithal.* If you’ve met challenges successfully before, then you will naturally expect to be able to meet new challenges successfully too. It’s confidence by analogy: “If I could do that difficult thing, I can probably do this difficult thing too.”

Here’s a life plan: Start young. Seed your self-efficacy with some early wins that prime you for ever-greater challenges. Extrapolate, thereby gaining receptivity to a broad array of possible challenges. Then in young adulthood, as your preferences mature and settle down, pursue whatever challenges interest you. Keep pumping your way through new challenges all life long. Treat the debilitations that come with age not as limiting factors but as new challenges.

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Alternatively, postpone challenges when you’re young. As a result end up with low self-efficacy. With low self-efficacy avoid challenges as long as possible. When challenges become inescapable by ordinary means, escape anyway, using extraordinarily unbelievable excuses. Believe your increasingly unbelievable excuses, thereby weakening your powers of discernment and good judgment. Drift further and further from reality.

Self-efficacy is confidence in your means of achieving your ends. It’s your perception of your supply of the wherewithal by which you could meet the demands you face. What’s most interesting is the way means enable ends, and supply enables demand. It’s a pleasure to recognize a challenge if you feel you’ve got a reasonable chance of dealing with it.

By contrast, if a challenge looks unbeatable, why even admit that the challenge is there? Better to ignore the challenge than open yourself to the cognitive dissonance of “I must do what I can not do.”

Why are so many people in denial about Global Warming? Maybe because they’re distracted or ignorant, but as likely because they have understandably low self-efficacy about our collective ability to manage the problem. Why do young people rebel? Maybe because they have low respect for society’s goals but as likely because they doubt their ability to meet them. If every time I look at myself, I wince with disappointment at my prospects of being the person I want to be, my strong inclination will be to stop wanting to be other than I am, even if it takes aggressive acts of denial to blind myself to my shortcomings.

Yes, where there’s a will there’s a way, but also where there’s a way, there’s a will-or at least the possibility of a will. Where there isn’t a way-when we sense that our supply of means can’t take us where we want to go-we often very naturally go to great pains to ignore and dismiss the will. “I don’t think I could meet that challenge” becomes “Who would want to meet that challenge?” and eventually “What challenge?”

Yes, necessity is the mother of invention, but also invention is the mother of necessity. Only when I have invented the internal wherewithal to meet a need can I admit to having the need.

Lately, a number of friends have pitched me enthusiastically on a popular alternative to self-efficacy through mastery experience: Think positive thoughts. Just tell yourself you can do it. Several have insisted that the reason this will work is that, in reality, there is no reality other than our perceptions, or that our perceptions create reality and our different perceptions mean we actually occupy different realities. I’ve critiqued this alternative before (see Yearnocracy). I’ve also discussed the tension between accurate and useful worldviews (Liked and Likely Stories; Optimal Illusion). Next week I’ll talk about an important distinction to keep in mind when it comes to finding meaning in anything: the distinction between function and representation.

* The other three are “modeling” (basing your behavior on that of others who have met the challenge), “social persuasions” (encouragement from others), and “physiological factors” (for example, manageable anxiety levels).

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