Albert Bandura, aged 91, is one of the most well renowned living psychologists in the field of psychology, as well one of the most cited (Haggbloom et al., 2002).
Throughout his career he has made significant contributions to all branches of psychology including social cognitive theory, reciprocal determinism and the famous ‘Bobo Doll Experiments’.
Up to the present day Bandura continues his work to broaden our understanding of the human psyche and unsurprisingly he has also had a significant influence in positive psychology. In fact his theory of self-efficacy, part of social cognitive theory, is fundamental to positive psychology and continues to shape thinking in the field.
Self-efficacy is the belief in one’s ability to influence events that effect one’s life and control over the way these events are experienced (Bandura, 1994).
An Agentic Perspective on Positive Psychology
Bandura presents his views on positive psychology in, “An Agentic Perspective on Positive Psychology” (Bandura, 2008), a chapter from a larger collection of writings on the field.
In this chapter he expresses his view of agentic positive psychology. He emphasizes human capacity rather than human failings and dysfunction.
Bandura explains how self-efficacy can be influenced and developed, and how it positively effects all facets of human experience.
Throughout his writing, Bandura critiques the predominantly negative, pathology-focused views in the discipline of psychology, contrasting it to positive psychology’s pro self-efficacy approach. He also addresses the “pathology of optimism”, which will be explained below, as compared to realism when effectively approaching life events.
The result of this chapter is an inspirational and encouraging push to continue pursuing research into human agency, self-efficacy and positive psychology perspectives as a whole.
According to Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is not a trait that some have and others don’t (or somewhere in-between). Instead he proposes that anyone, regardless of their past or current environment, has the ability to exercise and strengthen their self-efficacy.
He offers four ways to do this which we will delve into now:
4 Ways to Build Self-Efficacy
1) Mastery Experiences
Is experiencing the results of self-efficacy first hand. The key to mastery is approaching life with dedicated efforts and experimenting with realistic but challenging goals. Essential to mastery is also acknowledging the satisfaction of goals that are achieved.
Easy success with little effort can lead to us to expect rapid results which can in turn make us easily discouraged by failure (Bandura, 2008).
Experiencing failure is important so that we can build resilience to it. This is done by treating every failure as a learning opportunity and a chance to reach competence with a different approach.
2) Social Modeling
This means choosing role-models that can demonstrate their self-efficacy. Observing those who employ this in their lives and have reached their goals despite adversity can provide great motivation.
Bandura notes that due to modern technology, it is not necessary to draw role-models from one’s own social surroundings. The internet and other digital resources can provide windows into the lives of many inspiring models.
3) Social Persuasion
This is about ‘finding the right mentor’. While social modeling refers to the observation of a role model, social persuasion is about having others directly influence one’s self-efficacy by providing opportunities for mastery experiences in a safe and purposeful manner.
Due to the specific nature of self-efficacy strengthening experiences (avoiding easy successes and overwhelming failures) it essential to have a mentor that is “knowledgeable and practice[s] what they preach” (Bandura, 2008).
4) States of physiology
Our emotions, moods, and physical state can influence our interpretation of self-efficacy. It is easy to judge oneself with bias based on the state one in when a failure occurs.
To feel ‘tension, anxiety, and weariness’ is normal, but society has negative perspectives on such states, leading to a stronger sense of failure in the wake of these feelings. Positive and negative emotions act as magnets to further influence one’s sense of self-efficacy, especially in the case of a depressed mood when control can feel out of reach.
Introspection and education act as combatants to prevent these physical states from being interpreted negatively. By recognizing that it is normal and okay to experience such states in life, while working to “relieve anxiety and depression, build physical strength and stamina, and change negative misinterpretations of physical and affective states” (Bandura, 2008), self-efficacy can be interpreted in a more salient way. The strength self-efficacy scale is one tool which can help build insight and introspection.
How Self-Efficacy can Influence You
Albert Bandura goes on to explain how the degree to which someone believes in their own self-efficacy influences their functioning, this is expressed in four categories: cognitive, motivational, emotional, and decisional.
Thinking in self-enhancing (optimistic) or self-debilitating (pessimistic) ways can greatly influence functioning. To believe that one’s actions have an impact on their experience and environment allows for a self-sustaining optimistic view of life-that no matter what the circumstance something can be done to effect the ultimate outcome.
Without this belief, a more pessimistic thought process often takes predominance where events are thought of as ‘out-of-my-hands’ and the individual is simply a passenger in the ride that is life.
Based on how opportunities and obstacles are interpreted, it is easy to become victim to believing effort is futile in the face of obstacles, finally giving up altogether.
The alternative is seeing obstacles as something to be overcome, if the right skills and motivation were developed and employed.
Self-efficacy means believing in the value of motivation to influence an outcome. Feeling secure in this belief leads to self-determined motivation—therefore it is not a question of ‘can I reach my goal?’ but rather ‘what is required for me to reach my goal?’
Revisiting the idea of how states of physiology (our moods and feelings) influence self-efficacy, it works in reverse as well. A strong sense of self-efficacy means recognizing that it is normal and human to feel discouraged in the face of failure. However believing in one’s ability to ‘bounce back’ can influence the outcome of an experience.
When we learn that we are not at the mercy of our physiological states, we become less susceptible to emotional reactions. We are then able to grow competent in our self efficacy to deal with emotional challenges. This relates to the concept of emotional intelligence.
Self-efficacy means that there is a choice when it comes how we choose to experience our situation. By employing self-efficacy one can choose which environments are best suited for their growth and development.
This is essentially addressing the idea of destiny vs agency where people develop their own destinies and create the opportunities they desire through thoughtful choices.
Pathologizing Optimism: Visions to Realities
Albert Bandura makes a point in his writing to address the apparent trend of “pathologizing optimism”. He proposes that while realism is useful when risks are high and failure likely, it can often act as a hindrance to progress (Bandura, 2008).
In situations where time, effort and resources are the tradeoff, only optimism can provide the appropriate self-efficacy to achieve otherwise unreachable goals. There are many personal and social benefits of turning “visions into realities”. Bandura expresses his opinions of the importance of optimism for self-efficacy as:
“the risks of overconfidence are studied extensively, but the self-limiting costs of under confidence are largely ignored” (Bandura, 2008)
“Telling Half the Story” Misconceptions about Self-Efficacy
Self-Efficacy is not Selfish
Addressing the skepticism of self-efficacy, Albert Bandura points out that it is not self-centered and selfish as some psychological researchers may propose.
In fact he explains that self-efficacy can be used to uplift society, highlighting Gandhi’s self-sacrifice as an example of his “unwavering self-efficacy for social change under powerful opposition.”
Bandura states that “Without a resilient sense of efficacy, people are easily overwhelmed by adversities in their efforts to improve their lives and that of others” (Bandura, 2008). He goes on to note that self-efficacy remains static in its definition and benefit across all cultures, regardless of individualistic or collectivistic characteristics.
Both of these points stand strongly against the proposed idea that self-efficacy is inherently self-centered.
How Self-Efficacy can help to Overcome Environment
Current theories of psychopathology deem inner city populations overwhelmingly inclined to negative outcomes, however Bandura points out quite the contrary. With self-efficacy individuals overcome their daunting environments and go on to lead fulfilling lives free of crime, psychopathology and harmful behaviours.
In fact, Bandura proposes that it is in the face of difficult circumstances that self-efficacy becomes most necessary. If employed, self-efficacy can bring positive role-models, resourceful social-networks, and create nurturing environments, which result in progression and fulfillment.
Bandura feels this challenges the diathesis-stress model, which states that stress is an inevitable reaction when the internal threshold for stress is out of balance. Bandura believes this model disregards the role of an individual’s agency in how they manage their own stress.
Self-Efficacy and Substance Abuse
In the case of substance abuse, specifically smoking, Bandura goes through the proposed biological and psychological mechanisms standing in the way of those who wish to quit their addiction.
He makes a strong case for self-efficacy as a mediating factor in working through these factors. This is validated by the majority population of ex-smokers who have managed to stop without outside aid. Bandura does not dismiss the relevance of biological and psychological mechanisms in quitting, he only hopes to point out the value that self-efficacy can play in the addiction rehabilitation process.
Bandura reflects on the current medical system and how few preventive measures are available to the general population. While research predominantly seems to focus on what and how things can go wrong in the human body, alternative research does exist where the focus is on health promotion lifestyle choices.
In this instance self-efficacy can be a tool to make better decisions in life to take control of one’s health where possible—examples of these preventative self-efficacy methods include being “physically active, reduc[ing] dietary fat, refrain[ing] from smoking, keep[ing] blood pressure down, and develop[ing] effective ways of managing stressors” (Bandura, 2008).
Albert Bandura’s chapter on an agentic perspective of positive psychology challenges us to reconsider the popular cynicism of today. A path paved with the dismissal of positively oriented research and the choice of realism over optimism.
Bandura explains that only through mastery of our thoughts, motivations, emotions and decisions with the guidance and examples set by role models can we truly recognize our ability to shape the world. To face life without self-efficacy is to narrow one’s own scope when navigating the often daunting obstacles of life.
For those who were inspired by these highlights of “An Agentic Perspective of Positive Psychology” by Albert Bandura (2008), the full chapter is freely available online for a more detailed reading.
Want to know more about Albert Bandura
About the Author
Justin Buchanan is a counseling psychologist, originally based in the Netherlands and currently expanding his training in psychology in the United States. He is also a member of the American Counseling Association (ACA).
Bandura, A. (1994). Self‐efficacy. John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
Bandura, A. (2008). An agentic perspective on positive psychology. Positive psychology: Exploring the best in people, 1, 167-196.
Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, R., Warnick, J. E., Jones, V. K., Yarbrough, G. L., Russell, T. M., ... & Monte, E. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6(2), 139.