What is Efficacy of Activated Processes?

Much research has been conducted on the four major psychological processes through which self-beliefs of efficacy affect human functioning.

Cognitive Processes

The effects of self-efficacy beliefs on cognitive processes take a variety of forms. Much human behavior, being purposive, is regulated by forethought embodying valued goals. Personal goal setting is influenced by self-appraisal of capabilities. The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the higher the goal challenges people set for themselves and the firmer is their commitment to them.

Most courses of action are initially organized in thought. People’s beliefs in their efficacy shape the types of anticipatory scenarios they construct and rehearse. Those who have a high sense of efficacy, visualize success scenarios that provide positive guides and supports for performance. Those who doubt their efficacy, visualize failure scenarios and dwell on the many things that can go wrong. It is difficult to achieve much while fighting self-doubt. A major function of thought is to enable people to predict events and to develop ways to control those that affect their lives. Such skills require effective cognitive processing of information that contains many ambiguities and uncertainties. In learning predictive and regulative rules people must draw on their knowledge to construct options, to weight and integrate predictive factors, to test and revise their judgments against the immediate and distal results of their actions, and to remember which factors they had tested and how well they had worked.


It requires a strong sense of efficacy to remain task oriented in the face of pressing situational demands, failures and setbacks that have significant repercussions. Indeed, when people are faced with the tasks of managing difficult environmental demands under taxing circumstances, those who are beset by self-doubts about their efficacy become more and more erratic in their analytic thinking, lower their aspirations and the quality of their performance deteriorates. In contrast, those who maintain a resilient sense of efficacy set themselves challenging goals and use good analytic thinking which pays off in performance accomplishments.

Motivational Processes

Self-beliefs of efficacy play a key role in the self-regulation of motivation. Most human motivation is cognitively generated. People motivate themselves and guide their actions anticipatorily by the exercise of forethought. They form beliefs about what they can do. They anticipate likely outcomes of prospective actions. They set goals for themselves and plan courses of action designed to realize valued futures.

There are three different forms of cognitive motivators around which different theories have been built. They include causal attributions, outcome expectancies, and cognized goals. The corresponding theories are attribution theory, expectancy-value theory and goal theory, respectively. Self-efficacy beliefs operate in each of these types of cognitive motivation. Self-efficacy beliefs influence causal attributions. People who regard themselves as highly efficacious attribute their failures to insufficient effort, those who regard themselves as inefficacious attribute their failures to low ability. Causal attributions affect motivation, performance and affective reactions mainly through beliefs of self-efficacy.


In expectancy-value theory, motivation is regulated by the expectation that a given course of behavior will produce certain outcomes and the value of those outcomes. But people act on their beliefs about what they can do, as well as on their beliefs about the likely outcomes of performance. The motivating influence of outcome expectancies is thus partly governed by self-beliefs of efficacy. There are countless attractive options people do not pursue because they judge they lack the capabilities for them. The predictiveness of expectancy-value theory is enhanced by including the influence of perceived self- efficacy.

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The capacity to exercise self-influence by goal challenges and evaluative reaction to one’s own attainments provides a major cognitive mechanism of motivation. A large body of evidence shows that explicit, challenging goals enhance and sustain motivation. Goals operate largely through self-influence processes rather than regulate motivation and action directly. Motivation based on goal setting involves a cognitive comparison process. By making self-satisfaction conditional on matching adopted goals, people give direction to their behavior and create incentives to persist in their efforts until they fulfill their goals. They seek self-satisfaction from fulfilling valued goals and are prompted to intensify their efforts by discontent with substandard performances.

Motivation based on goals or personal standards is governed by three types of self-influences. They include self-satisfying and self-dissatisfying reactions to one’s performance, perceived self-efficacy for goal attainment, and readjustment of personal goals based on one’s progress. Self-efficacy beliefs contribute to motivation in several ways: They determine the goals people set for themselves; how much effort they expend; how long they persevere in the face of difficulties; and their resilience to failures. When faced with obstacles and failures people who harbor self-doubts about their capabilities slacken their efforts or give up quickly. Those who have a strong belief in their capabilities exert greater effort when they fail to master the challenge. Strong perseverance contributes to performance accomplishments.


Affective Processes

People’s beliefs in their coping capabilities affect how much stress and depression they experience in threatening or difficult situations, as well as their level of motivation. Perceived self-efficacy to exercise control over stressors plays a central role in anxiety arousal. People who believe they can exercise control over threats do not conjure up disturbing thought patterns. But those who believe they cannot manage threats experience high anxiety arousal. They dwell on their coping deficiencies. They view many aspects of their environment as fraught with danger. They magnify the severity of possible threats and worry about things that rarely happen. Through such inefficacious thinking they distress themselves and impair their level of functioning. Perceived coping self-efficacy regulates avoidance behavior as well as anxiety arousal. The stronger the sense of self-efficacy the bolder people are in taking on taxing and threatening activities.

Anxiety arousal is affected not only by perceived coping efficacy but by perceived efficacy to control disturbing thoughts. The exercise of control over one’s own consciousness is summed up well in the proverb: “You cannot prevent the birds of worry and care from flying over your head. But you can stop them from building a nest in your head.” Perceived self-efficacy to control thought processes is a key factor in regulating thought produced stress and depression. It is not the sheer frequency of disturbing thoughts but the perceived inability to turn them off that is the major source of distress. Both perceived coping self-efficacy and thought control efficacy operate jointly to reduce anxiety and avoidant behavior.

Social cognitive theory prescribes mastery experiences as the principal means of personality change. Guided mastery is a powerful vehicle for instilling a robust sense of coping efficacy in people whose functioning is seriously impaired by intense apprehension and phobic self-protective reactions. Mastery experiences are structured in ways to build coping skills and instill beliefs that one can exercise control over potential threats. Intractable phobics, of course, are not about to do what they dread. One must, therefore, create an environment so that incapacitated phobics can perform successfully despite themselves. This is achieved by enlisting a variety of performance mastery aids. Feared activities are first modeled to show people how to cope with threats and to disconfirm their worst fears. Coping tasks are broken down into subtasks of easily mastered steps. Performing feared activities together with the therapist further enables phobics to do things they would resist doing by themselves. Another way of overcoming resistance is to use graduated time. Phobics will refuse threatening tasks if they will have to endure stress for a long time. But they will risk them for a short period. As their coping efficacy increases the time they perform the activity is extended. Protective aids and dosing the severity of threats also help to restore and develop a sense of coping efficacy.

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After functioning is fully restored, the mastery aids are withdrawn to verify that coping successes stem from personal efficacy rather than from mastery aids. Self-directed mastery experiences, designed to provide varied confirmatory tests of coping capabilities, are then arranged to strengthen and generalize the sense of coping efficacy. Once people develop a resilient sense of efficacy they can withstand difficulties and adversities without adverse effects.

Guided mastery treatment achieves widespread psychological changes in a relatively short time. It eliminates phobic behavior and anxiety and biological stress reactions, creates positive attitudes and eradicates phobic ruminations and nightmares. Evidence that achievement of coping efficacy profoundly affects dream activity is a particularly striking generalized impact.

A low sense of efficacy to exercise control produces depression as well as anxiety. It does so in several different ways. One route to depression is through unfulfilled aspiration. People who impose on themselves standards of self-worth they judge they cannot attain drive themselves to bouts of depression. A second efficacy route to depression is through a low sense of social efficacy. People who judge themselves to be socially efficacious seek out and cultivate social relationships that provide models on how to manage difficult situations, cushion the adverse effects of chronic stressors and bring satisfaction to people’s lives. Perceived social inefficacy to develop satisfying and supportive relationships increases vulnerability to depression through social isolation. Much human depression is cognitively generated by dejecting ruminative thought. A low sense of efficacy to exercise control over ruminative thought also contributes to the occurrence, duration and recurrence of depressive episodes.


Other efficacy-activated processes in the affective domain concern the impact of perceived coping self-efficacy on biological systems that affect health functioning. Stress has been implicated as an important contributing factor to many physical dysfunctions. Controllability appears to be a key organizing principle regarding the nature of these stress effects. It is not stressful life conditions per se, but the perceived inability to manage them that is debilitating. Thus, exposure to stressors with ability to control them has no adverse biological effects. But exposure to the same stressors without the ability to control them impairs the immune system. The impairment of immune function increases susceptibility to infection, contributes to the development of physical disorders and accelerates the progression of disease.

Biological systems are highly interdependent. A weak sense of efficacy to exercise control over stressors activates autonomic reactions, catecholamine secretion and release of endogenous opioids. These biological systems are involved in the regulation of the immune system. Stress activated in the process of acquiring coping capabilities may have different effects than stress experienced in aversive situations with no prospect in sight of ever gaining any self-protective efficacy. There are substantial evolutionary benefits to experiencing enhanced immune function during development of coping capabilities vital for effective adaptation. It would not be evolutionarily advantageous if acute stressors invariably impaired immune function, because of their prevalence in everyday life. If this were the case, people would experience high vulnerability to infective agents that would quickly do them in. There is some evidence that providing people with effective means for managing stressors may have a positive effect on immune function. Moreover, stress aroused while gaining coping mastery over stressors can enhance different components of the immune system.


There are other ways in which perceived self-efficacy serves to promote health. Lifestyle habits can enhance or impair health. This enables people to exert behavioral influence over their vitality and quality of health. Perceived self-efficacy affects every phase of personal change–whether people even consider changing their health habits; whether they enlist the motivation and perseverance needed to succeed should they choose to do so; and how well they maintain the habit changes they have achieved. The stronger the perceived self-regulatory efficacy the more successful people are in reducing health-impairing habits and adopting and integrating health-promoting habits into their regular lifestyle. Comprehensive community programs designed to prevent cardiovascular disease by altering risk-related habits reduce the rate of morbidity and mortality.


Selection Processes

The discussion so far has centered on efficacy-activated processes that enable people to create beneficial environments and to exercise some control over those they encounter day in and day out. People are partly the product of their environment. Therefore, beliefs of personal efficacy can shape the course lives take by influencing they types of activities and environments people choose. People avoid activities and situations they believe exceed their coping capabilities. But they readily undertake challenging activities and select situations they judge themselves capable of handling. By the choices they make, people cultivate different competencies, interests and social networks that determine life courses. Any factor that influences choice behavior can profoundly affect the direction of personal development. This is because the social influences operating in selected environments continue to promote certain competencies, values, and interests long after the efficacy decisional determinant has rendered its inaugurating effect.

Career choice and development is but one example of the power of self-efficacy beliefs to affect the course of life paths through choice-related processes. The higher the level of people’s perceived self-efficacy the wider the range of career options they seriously consider, the greater their interest in them, and the better they prepare themselves educationally for the occupational pursuits they choose and the greater is their success. Occupations structure a good part of people’s lives and provide them with a major source of personal growth.

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