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To what extent do individual achievements influence future performance?

Published on: Apr 26, 2021

A central problem within our society is that many people are not willing to leave their comfort zone, but instead strive for even more comfort. However, at some point, everyone is faced with challenges that they have to manage. In addition, the dynamic environment in which we operate means that new potential challenges arise and we must continually adapt and evolve. Often, such changes are initiated by external incentives that affect how we behave in our personal and professional lives. However, these incentives alone are often not sufficient to bring about a (sustainable) change in behavior. This raises the question of why people avoid challenges, and what conditions need to be met for more ambitious goals to be pursued without the need for extrinsic incentives. This post will consider the influence of self-efficacy on individual willingness to act, how people can benefit from challenging activities, and the difficulties that can be expected.

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A much-discussed approach is the consideration of self-efficacy expectations, which originated in psychology and whose application has been extended to a variety of other fields. The term was coined by the Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura, who defines it as follows:

“Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives. Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave.”¹

It should be noted at the outset that self-efficacy expectations play a significant role in particular in explaining why people avoid difficult or challenging actions, but are only of limited significance with regard to simple, repetitive activities. First, it is assumed at this point that the expectation that a certain action will lead to the desired performance or outcome is not sufficient to explain why people perform certain actions. Rather, it requires the individual conviction that one is capable of performing them adequately. Such self-efficacy beliefs are necessary for individuals to realize an action. In addition to the decision to take up an action, an individual’s self-efficacy expectancy also affects how a person deals with any difficulties that may arise in the course of performing it. A high self-efficacy belief leads to higher effort and a greater willingness to deal with additional challenges, which in turn could lead to better performance.² However, the predictive power of self-efficacy expectations for future actions or performances has been and continues to be criticized. Bandura & Locke (2003) have addressed such criticisms by taking into consideration of a large number of meta-studies and confirmed the significant influence of self-efficacy beliefs on performance and motivation. Here, the confirmed significance is independent of whether past, individual performance is explicitly considered or not.³

A central role in relation to the self-efficacy of individuals is played by the incentives with which people are confronted in everyday life. Even though extrinsic incentives are often (rightfully) criticized, they can have a positive impact on self-efficacy expectations. What is important here is that the incentives are geared toward a high level of performance and the individual’s experience of competence. When such incentives reward the agent’s competence, this leads to increased self-efficacy and may increase the person’s interest in performing or repeating an action or activity. The increased interest results from the fact that people classify challenging activities as more interesting than those that can be performed without difficulty. In addition, suitable incentives can help individuals to achieve their best performance by motivating them to test their own limits. However, in order to increase one’s self-efficacy expectations, it is important that one’s actions can be evaluated against a suitable performance standard. Therefore, overarching goals should always be translated into appropriate intermediate goals. If these are achieved and one’s own competence is seen as the central cause of the desired outcome, self-efficacy increases and the level of challenge can be raised continuously, so that even those long-term goals can be achieved that may have seemed impossible at the time of formulation. Thus, high self-efficacy beliefs may lead individuals to be intrinsically motivated to perform challenging actions because they are more likely to be interested in them and they enhance their experience of competence. In contrast, individuals with low self-efficacy beliefs are more likely to try to abdicate responsibility instead of overcoming challenges themselves. In everyday life, it is also possible to observe situations in which individuals’ self-efficacy is undermined, so that they often perform at a lower level than their abilities would allow them to.⁴

The conceptual understanding of self-efficacy has implications for both private and professional everyday life. Sooner or later, everyone is confronted with challenges that they have to overcome in some way. However, the insights can be applied not only to difficulties, which are usually perceived as something negative, but can also help people set ambitious goals and pursue them in the long term. As described earlier, the presence of relevant skills alone is not sufficient to face the challenges at hand. So if it is true that a sufficient level of self-efficacy is also needed, then a new problem opens up at this point. An increase in self-efficacy does not happen overnight – similar to an increase in self-confidence or self-esteem – but is the result of a long process. Thus, it seems important that the individual’s experience of competence should be brought to the forefront early on and sufficiently encouraged. Additionally, the extent to which self-efficacy beliefs are action-specific is questionable. Although it can be argued that high self-efficacy in relation to an explicit action does not have a direct impact on other activities, it could be suggested that the feeling of having achieved a success due to one’s competence also has an impact on other areas of one’s life. Thus, it would be conceivable that significant success in a particular domain would lead an individual to be more convinced that he or she could also master challenges in another domain.

Although it is likely that the majority of individually perceived self-efficacy results from one’s own experiences, it can also potentially be influenced from the outside. For example, affirmation from colleagues, friends, or family members could have a positive influence by sharing their belief and clearly communicating that one is capable of performing an action and achieving the desired performance outcome. However, there may always be a discrepancy between one’s self-assessment and others’ assessment. In this case, it could be advantageous if the encouragement is not merely general, but uses specific situations in which comparable successes have already been achieved to illustrate why the person will also be successful in relation to this challenge. The encouraging persons thus have a guiding function in that they support the acting person in perceiving his or her own self-efficacy. Last, it should be considered that the reverse case could also occur. If one’s self-efficacy is (incorrectly) rated as too low, appropriate incentives may increase one’s efforts and one may find that one’s abilities are very much sufficient to achieve the desired outcome. However, if one’s self-efficacy is (incorrectly) judged to be too high or situational influences lead to the expected performance not being realized, this potentially lowers one’s self-efficacy beliefs that have been built up over a long period of time. Particularly if it is not one’s own performance but external influences that have led to the non-achievement of the goal, it is important that the situation is sufficiently reflected upon and appropriately evaluated, as otherwise such a situation could have a destructive character that may reduce the individual’s willingness to perform in the long term.

Individual self-efficacy expectations have a significant influence on which actions people take up and which they avoid. A strong incentive to take up an activity is ineffective as long as the acting person is convinced that he or she is not able to realize the required performance with his or her own abilities. However, if past successes can be attributed to one’s own competence and the positive experience of competence is in the foreground, one’s own self-efficacy increases and with it the willingness to take up more challenging actions. The increase of the self-efficacy conviction is subject to a long-term process, so that it is advantageous if the experience of competence is already promoted in childhood. This potentially opens up new opportunities and enables people to pursue increasingly ambitious goals instead of taking refuge in comfort.

¹ Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).

² Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191-215.
https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.84.2.191.

³ Bandura, A., & Locke, E. A. (2003). Negative self-efficacy and goal effects revisited. Journal of applied psychology, 88(1), 87-99.
https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.88.1.87.

⁴ Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American psychologist, 37(2), 122-147.
https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.37.2.122.

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