A psychology geek’s take on self-efficacy and how it relates to Flow states
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Henry Ford was right when he claimed: “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right”. Apparently, it’s neither talent nor genius that determines our success, but our belief whether we’re able to succeed. And while “believe in yourself” may sound like a cheesy inspirational quote from a calendar, there’s actually a well-researched concept behind it called “self-efficacy”. Self-efficacious people tend to set higher goals, invest greater effort and keep going even when facing obstacles (e.g., Bandura, 1997). Stay tuned for the psychological mechanisms behind self-efficacy, how it related to Flow and what you can do to strengthen it.
Self-efficacy: Let’s start with the background
Around 40 years ago, the psychologist Albert Bandura introduced the concept of self-efficacy: a person’s expectation of being able to successfully perform desired actions (Bandura, 1997). In other words, you believe in your competencies and are convinced that you can reach your goals. And as we will explore later, this simple belief influences how people feel, think, behave and motivate themselves. Bandura (1995) emphasizes that the concept doesn’t refer to simple actions or routines (such as daily duties). It is rather applied whenever complex competencies are needed to cope with challenging situations, for example, during a job interview or before an important match. And we can use what we know from research to memorize and practice a new framework of thought and behavior patterns that helps us to cope with stress more flexibly and expand our comfort zones.
General versus specific self-efficacy
But first the theory: Self-efficacy can be broken down into two categories, namely general and task-specific self-efficacy. You may guess it from their names: General self-efficacy refers to the general belief in one’s competence to handle new tasks and challenges. Specific self-efficacy, on the other hand, describes confidence in one’s abilities in a specific situation or about a particular task. To name a few, this can be self-efficacy in the study context (academic self-efficacy; Zimmerman, 1995), for entrepreneurial endeavors (entrepreneurial self-efficacy; Boyd & Vozikis, 1994; Chen et al., 1998), during creative tasks (creative self-efficacy; Brockhus et al., 2014), or even when it comes to regulating your emotions (emotion regulation self-efficacy; Caprara et al., 2008).
Apart from these categories, the construct of efficacy is not limited to a self-referential perception about one’s own capabilities. It can also be investigated as a property of a social system, referred to as “collective efficacy”. It involves an individual’s belief in the ability of their team or unit to successfully and effectively perform a task (Lent et al., 2006). Studies show a strong positive relationship between collective efficacy and enhanced group performance (Paskevich et al., 1999). And when collective efficacy is high, so is group cohesion, according to psychologists: Group cohesion is the group’s tendency to stick together (Ronayne, 2004). Apparently, collective efficacy and group cohesion have a reciprocal relationship (Zaccaro et al., 1995). That means, when a team shares the belief that they will succeed (collective efficacy), then they tend to stick together more closely (group cohesion). Similarly, when a group sticks together (group cohesion), they may also strengthen the belief that they will succeed (collective efficacy). The outcome remains the same: Performance skyrockets (e.g., Carron et al., 2002).
… and the role of mirror neurons
From a neuroscientific perspective, the “mirror neuron system” seems to be involved in collective efficacy: We know that neurons in brain areas that fire when executing a behavior are also active when only watching others performing that behavior (e.g., Gallese et al., 1996; Rizzolati et al., 1996; Umilta et al., 2001). These mirror neurons can be found in the frontal, premotor, motor and parietal cortical areas. They are, for example, involved in tasks such as understanding action and intention, imitating behavior, developing empathy and language development (Rizzolatti, 2005; Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). Based on that, Shearer and colleagues (2009) propose to consider the mirror neuron system in the context of collective efficacy where team members assess shared efficacy beliefs through mutual behavioral empathy. The researchers provide the example of a rugby player watching teammates performing a lineout play. Through this observation, the rugby player’s neural representation of the event gets activated. As a result, they may immediately understand the actions of their teammates (Jeannerod, 2008).
Okay, and finally, efficacy is even more multifaceted because it doesn’t even need to refer to people. Means efficacy, for instance, is defined as the individual’s belief in the usefulness of external resources to perform an action (Eden, 2001). These resources may come, for example, in the form of money, tools, technology, time or also information. Eden (2001) found that a high means efficacy is much more motivating, thereby encouraging us to use those means more effectively.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, efficacy encompasses various facets and may therefore be easily confused with other seemingly similar concepts. So let’s unravel the theory even a bit further.
Self-efficacy, confidence, perceived competence, optimism or all in one?
At first sight, self-efficacy may be misunderstood as confidence, perceived competence or optimism. Psychologically speaking, however, there are clear distinctions between these concepts. Let’s take a look one by one. One key difference between self-efficacy and confidence concerns the valence: Confidence can be bi-directional. So for example, I could also be confident to fail. It rather describes the strength of the belief. Self-efficacy, on the other hand, only refers to a positive belief about one’s capabilities (Singh et al., 2009).
Likewise, there is a clear difference between self-efficacy and optimism: In contrast to self-efficacy, optimism is not necessarily self-focused (e.g., I can be optimistic that my sister will get the new job) and does not necessarily refer to perceived ability (e.g., I can be optimistic that it will be sunny next week; Rand, 2018).
And finally, self-efficacy and perceived competence can be disentangled as well: While self-efficacy is about the belief of being able to succeed (general self-efficacy), perhaps in a specific domain (domain- or task-specific self-efficacy), perceived competence can vary from time to time. You may feel competent on Monday to close new deals at work, but don’t feel competent on Tuesday anymore.
Why you should care about self-efficacy
Okay, but theoretical concepts aside – how does self-efficacy actually influence our daily experiences? Well, there are numerous effects on our performance, health and well-being: Empirical studies show that people with a strong belief in their own competence and efficiency exhibit higher persistence in performance tasks, a lower susceptibility to anxiety disorders and depression and overall more success in their working life (McLeod, 2015). What’s more, if self-efficacy is actively targeted in psychological therapies, perceived pain levels dropped (Dension et al., 2007). Also, people showed less addictive behavior (Ilgen, 2007) and improved coping with chronic diseases (Rieckmann, 2002). With an increase in self-efficacy, participants also used their resources more effectively (Weber, 2002). According to health psychologists, people are more likely to adopt health-promoting behaviors if they feel efficacious to successfully perform those behaviors. For example, a high level of self-efficacy might contribute to adherence to an exercise program. This is usually beneficial not only to achieve one’s goal of completing the workout, but also because it obviously betters our physical and mental well-being. This way, self-efficacy helps people to make healthier lifestyle choices – like trying to eat more wholesome food or to quit smoking.
People with a high level of self-efficacy don’t sugarcoat their setbacks. They reflect on their actions, yet a failed attempt is not a reason for them to fundamentally doubt themselves and their competence. Click To Tweet
Self-efficacy at work
In the working context, a high level of self-efficacy is also crucial for success. For example, employees with low self-efficacy tend to drop a goal after a failure rather than giving it another shot and improve their skills because they are afraid of failing again (Mayer, 2010). Their thoughts may, for instance, sound like “I already knew I couldn’t do this and nothing will change that”. The experience of failure thereby negatively impacts the expectation with which the person will approach similar challenges in the future. In contrast, self-efficacious employees tend to frame their thoughts in a different way. After a failure, they may think something like: “It was due to my lack of experience. I’m going to give it another try. And I’ll be able to apply the knowledge I learned from it”. (If you like to know more about how to deal effectively with setbacks, check out our article on the growth mindset). So to sum it up: People with a high level of self-efficacy don’t sugarcoat their setbacks. They reflect on their actions. Yet a failed attempt is not a reason for them to fundamentally doubt themselves and their competence.
Spiraling upward toward more self-efficacy and Flow
There is no doubt that self-efficacy plays an important role for Flow. And we know that both self-efficacy and Flow correlate with better performance (e.g., Sklett et al., 2018). While some researchers found that high self-efficacy increases this peak performance state (e.g., Hosseini & Fattahi, 2014; Mesurado et al., 2015), others found a reverse relationship: Yen & Lin (2020), for instance, showed that Flow states increased entrepreneurial self-efficacy through increased learning performance.
So does self-efficacy increase Flow or the other way around? Well, there is evidence that the answer is: both. In fact, one can tap into an upward spiral of self-efficacy and Flow (Salanova et al., 2006): People with a high level of self-efficacy set themselves more ambitious goals and exhibit more motivation. This, in turn, makes Flow more likely. In Flow, we can reach outstanding performance, thereby strengthening our self-efficacy beliefs again. So you see, you’ll definitely benefit from learning how to increase your self-efficacy beliefs. And this is exactly what we’re going to discuss next!
Self-efficacy and Flow reinforce each other which results in an upward spiral.
How to build self-efficacy …
This is our favorite part – because here comes what you can do to strengthen your self-efficacy! Psychologists determined four sources of this positive belief system. And it works like this: All information obtained from these sources first goes through an information processing system. Here, it is selected according to relevance, weighted and combined to form an integrative judgment of one’s own self-efficacy. So for example, you receive a compliment for your work from a colleague. This information is then assessed depending on, for instance, how close we are with this colleague, how credible this compliment was, which position they have, whether this feedback aligns with feedback you received in the past, and so on. Of course, there are various factors influencing this process, such as moods, social pressures, time pressure or perhaps the natural urge to reduce cognitive dissonance.
You’ve certainly come across cognitive dissonance before: It’s an unpleasant emotional state of tension due to incompatible thoughts, behaviors, attitudes or desires (Festinger, 1957). Let’s be real: How often have you found yourself reaching for the chocolate bar although you intended to eat healthier? In this case, your behavior (reaching for the chocolate bar) differs from your intention (eating healthier), thereby creating cognitive dissonance. In order to reduce this tension, you may either adapt your behavior (not eating the chocolate bar, so that your behavior matches your intention again) or your cognitions (e.g., telling yourself that this is an exception and you’ll start tomorrow so your cognition matches your behavior). As you learned earlier, high self-efficacy helps you make healthier decisions, so let’s cut to the chase: Here come the four sources of self-efficacy and how you can cover them.
… with these four sources
#1: Mastery Experiences
“I’ve already managed this before, I’ll accomplish it again.”
The probably easiest way to boost self-efficacy is through actually succeeding, or so-called “mastery experiences”. Your own success experiences have the biggest impact on the development of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977, 1997). And achieving a goal through your own efforts also shapes your beliefs of being capable to also master difficult tasks in the future. Take a student who has already experienced that they have mastered an exam with a good grade. Next time they go into a similar exam, they most likely have a higher self-efficacy belief (given that they prepare as well as last time). Reminding yourself of what you’ve accomplished in the past is therefore a powerful approach to build self-efficacy.
Imagine a situation in which you didn’t know how to solve a task at first. But over time, you gradually developed a successful solution strategy through your own efforts, no matter the obstacles or setbacks. Then recall what it felt after you’ve finally succeeded. If you know that you’ve been able to master even difficult challenges and bounce back after setbacks in the past, you’ll be more likely to accept challenges in the future as well and find Flow.
If you like, you can even start a list of your successes: Write down…
(1) any success moment, no matter how big or small
(2) the strengths you exhibited in this moment and
(3) what helps you to recall this strength in the future (e.g., an affirmation, a thought, a resource, …).
And of course, our Flow Sessions have this source covered as well. For instance, reflect on your past achievements with “Mountain Top” or reflect on your strong suit with “Core Strength”.
#2: Vicarious Experiences
“If they can do it, so can I.”
The second source of self-efficacy is based on our deeply rooted tendency to learn from observing the people around us. Watching other people succeed shows us that something is actually doable. And it strengthens our expectation that we can master it as well (given that we perceive the other to be somehow similar to us). What’s more, they not only show us that it is possible to tackle, but maybe also how to tackle it: In fact, observational (or vicarious) learning may serve as a great source of inspiration. We may get to know strategies we can adopt to approach the challenge with, resources that may support us along the way and also certain mindsets that help us make progress and push through when things get tricky.
So if you think about it – is there a person who has already achieved something you’re currently pursuing? Or who is simply a few steps ahead of you? If so, you may ask yourself questions such as “What can I learn from them? Which obstacles did they have to overcome? And what helped them do so?”. Perhaps even proactively reach out to them (because, let’s be honest, most of the time, people feel flattered and are happy to share their experience).
… and mental imagery…
And it not only works through direct observation, but also through mental imagery: According to researchers, mental imagery interventions can also be an effective tool to improve self-efficacy beliefs. Apparently, they improved performance, motivational and affective outcomes (e.g., Jones et al.,2002; Short et al., 2002). Give them a shot, for example, with our Flow session “Role Models” where you bring to mind a personal role model and reflect on the things this person can teach you. This will help you foster confidence, learning and Flow and increase self-efficacy.
#3: Verbal Persuasion
“I’ve got what it takes.”
Self-efficacy can also be increased through verbal encouragement. People close to us such as parents and friends, but also teachers, managers or coaches can strengthen our belief that we have what it takes to succeed, for example, in the form of genuine praise or positive (yet credible) feedback. Getting reassured that we possess the capabilities to tackle difficult situations motivates us to put in the effort and sustain it in the face of adversity. For example, sport psychologists explain that positive feedback from coaches can increase athletes’ performance. Likewise, negative reinforcement runs the risk of diminishing athletes’ self-efficacy, especially if it is already low (e.g. Weinberg et al., 1992). When you are doubting yourself prior to a challenge, perhaps talk to your dear ones and ask them what they appreciate about you.
But it’s not only the things that other people tell us. It’s also how you talk to yourself that matters. Positive self-talk helps to achieve better performance, sustain attention and increase confidence (Zinsser et al., 2006). So train to encourage yourself in difficult moments and develop a positive inner dialogue with the Flow Session “Best Friend”.
#4: Emotional & Physiological States
“Sweaty hands are just a sign that my body provides me with energy and focus I need for my challenge.”
All good things come in fours, don’t they? 😉 So finally, the last source is about how you interpret physical and emotional states. For example, if you perceive physical stress symptoms such as a racing heart, sweaty palms or a nervous stomach as hindering high performance (also called “stress-is-debilitating mindset”; Crum et al., 2013), nervousness and anxiety most likely rise and we tend to perform worse. Research, however, shows that with practice, people can learn to interpret such sensations in more adaptive ways. They may, for example, view them as signs of joyful excitement, a sign that the body is providing them with energy and focus they need to tackle the challenge or anticipation of what is to come (Stangl, 2021). Perceiving physical activation as facilitative to performance (“stress-is-enhancing mindset”; Crum et al., 2013) has been found to increase performance.
And we know it’s easier said than done. So if you prefer a little guidance during this process, we recommend the Flow session “Challenge Accepted”. In this session, you’ll learn to make stress-related physiological activation work for rather than against you.
Now it’s your turn to put these tips into practice! Make mental fitness your routine to achieve outstanding performance and increase self-efficacy and Flow. The Flow Coach guides you through the process, so go ahead and download Flow Lab now for iOS or Android!