Self-Efficacy and The Art of Doing Things

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A Thing I Didn’t Do

In Lethbridge, Alberta, where I went to university and lived for five years, there is a very large, very long, and very high train bridge. It stretches across a giant valley that has been carved away by the Oldman River. It’s a beautiful area in the heart of the city. The river is surrounded by rolling hills, and the university sits atop them like a boat carried by the waves of the sea. The valley is so deep and just wide enough, that were a train to go down into it, even gradually, it would never come back out. So in an effort to prevent trains from being swallowed in the belly of Lethbridge, early workers built the bridge across the valley. Trains don’t have to dip or climb: they just go straight across. Over 300 feet tall and 1.6 kilometers long (just under one mile), the High Level Bridge, as it’s called, is the largest of its kind. It was completed in 1909 by manly men who probably all had moustaches or beards, wore suspenders or flannel suits, didn’t have safety equipment, and had never driven a car. And I don’t understand how they did it. The bridge has always fascinated me. And from all angles – from the highways on both sides, underneath it, and even on top of it; whenever I really look at it, I’m in awe. It’s the symbol of the city and its main attraction. People have their picture taken by it, it’s on postcards, and a Google image search of “Lethbridge” fills the screen with mostly pictures of the bridge. It is Lethbridge, and in a sense, my whole experience living there revolved around the bridge.

Early on in my time in Lethbridge, I mentioned in conversation how fascinated I was by the bridge and how I would love to know how it was built. The person I was talking with happened to have recently visited the local museum, where a video is regularly shown that documents the construction of the bridge. Perfect. I was talking to the right person at the right time and my problem was solved. A gift from the universe. But I spit in the universe’s face. Despite my deep interest in the topic, the proximity of the museum, the low admission fee, my flexible student schedule, and the fact that the experience would provide me exactly what I was looking for, I never went. The whole time I lived there, I never went.

I’ve thought about this many times. Why didn’t I ever go? Why wouldn’t I do something so easy – something I wanted to do?

Theory of Doing Things

Bored out of his mind in Mundare, Alberta (population 855), Albert Bandura decided to grow up to become a world-famous psychologist. And what Albert Bandura decides to do, Albert Bandura does. Now among the most cited psychologists, and clearly a doer of things, Bandura is the authority on getting things done. His Social Cognitive Theory revolves around the concept of self-efficacy. According to Bandura, self-efficacy is, “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” In other words, self-efficacy is your belief in your own ability to do the things you want to do.

People with high levels of self-efficacy:

  • See problems as challenges to overcome, or tasks to be mastered. Even completing small tasks is a source of satisfaction.
  • Develop deep interests and are active participants in various activities. Interests grow and develop and the world seems big.
  • Form a strong sense of commitment to their interests. They don’t go half-way, or start projects and give up quickly.
  • Recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments.

Whereas people with low levels of self-efficacy:

  • Avoid challenges (or inconveniences) – big or small (or even very small).
  • Believe difficult things are beyond their abilities. They see other people doing things and assume the position of observer, not participant.
  • Focus on their personal failings. They don’t give themselves credit.
  • Lose confidence easily and quickly, giving up on new things when they’re difficult, uncomfortable, or just different.

I believe the answer to why I didn’t do an easy, and probably enjoyable, thing, lies in this concept of self-efficacy.

But what about doing hard things?

A Thing I Did

The bed was a little wider than my body and not quite as long. It sunk in the middle so it was more like a hammock or a trampoline than a bed. And the blanket was thick and stiff, suspended over the bed like a tarp on a canoe. I had been cold and lost and alone, but found my way to my room to regroup and recuperate. The room smelled like sulfur and I didn’t know what time it was. I didn’t know what time I arrived in Iceland, but found that it was earlier than stores opened. With no coat, no watch, no friends, no map, and no way to get any of those things, finding my room was a victory. Being alone in a strange place hit me hard, so I crumpled myself into my little nook and went to sleep. The nap was a success, and I soon turned things around and had a wonderful three days by myself in Iceland.

I had always wanted to go to Iceland. So I went. I spent three days alone there, finding my way around, doing activities, learning some of the culture, navigating the lunar landscape (a tour I went on informed me that NASA took their astronauts to Iceland to get a feel for what it would be like on the moon), getting goods and services without knowing the language, adjusting to the time change and the never-setting sun, exploring and going on excursions, and overcoming low spirits to relax and enjoy. By all accounts, doing all that was much harder than driving down the street to go to a museum. Both were things I wanted to do; I did the hard one and never got around to the easy one. Why? It would be easy to say that going to Iceland is more interesting than going to the museum in Lethbridge, but I believe my fascination with that bridge was equal to my desire to see Iceland. Self-efficacy can provide some answers.

Bandura’s Theory of Doing Things, Again

According to Bandura, self-efficacy is deep-rooted. It develops in four main ways:

  • Social modeling. Seeing other people succeed raises our belief that we too can succeed. This is especially true when the person is within our sphere of influence. We may think things like, “If that regular schmo can do it, I can too.” But it can also go the other way: “If that awesome dude can’t do it, why should I be able to?”
  • Social persuasion. Encouragement from others makes it easier to do things, and discouragement makes it harder. This can be obvious or subtle. Not getting the encouragement we’re hoping for, even with no direct discouragement, can severely weaken our ability to do things. This shows how fragile self-efficacy can be when not tended to.
  • Mastery experiences. Bandura says this is the most effective way to develop self-efficacy. Succeeding makes further success easier to attain. But it almost seems stronger going the other way. One failure, no matter how minor, can be a huge blow. Again, self-efficacy is a fragile thing when left on its own.
  • Psychological responses. Our moods, feelings, physical reactions, stress levels, and other states of mind can affect our levels of self-efficacy. But Bandura notes, “It is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important, but rather how they are perceived and interpreted.” We can take charge by being aware of them and how they affect our self-efficacy.

But why didn’t I go to the museum?

I mentioned above that people with high levels of self-efficacy have deep interests, form deep commitments, recover quickly from setbacks, and take satisfaction from completing tasks and overcoming challenges. People with low levels lose interest and give up easily, remain uninvolved, focus on their failings, and avoid challenges and tasks. So according to that definition, I have both high levels and low levels of self-efficacy: I make deep commitments, have deep interests, and overcome challenges, but also give up easily, and avoid tasks.

My own experience tells me that we can have different levels of self-efficacy in different areas, or for different types of tasks. It seems that I have higher self-efficacy in doing more involved things, and low self-efficacy when it comes to smaller tasks. We could categorize tasks in many ways: big, small, medium, long-term, short-term, involved, straightforward, complex, simple, and so on. And I believe if we plotted our levels of self-efficacy on a graph, with self-efficacy on the vertical axis and categories of tasks on the horizontal axis, and connected the dots, most people would have a mountain range. It would be really high in some areas, really low in others, and everything in between. But just as seeing ourselves succeed makes further success more likely, looking at our high levels in one area makes it easier to increase those levels in another. Remembering that I can do big things makes it easier to do small things. And if it’s the other way for you – small tasks are easier but you avoid big things – remember that big things are just a lot of small things piled on top of each other.

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