The importance of self-efficacy

12 Dec 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 12 Dec 2019

Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to succeed at tasks they take on. We should all know more about it, and its effects.


Self-efficacy is an interesting concept.

It means the belief a person has in their ability to attain results, to meet the challenges ahead of them, and to influence events that effect their own lives.

It is not the same as confidence, or self-esteem, or motivation or self-regulation but it is positively related to each of these.

Self-efficacy is also a key part of modern public policy, is a measure progress within the current Programme for Government (PfG), and is deemed sufficiently important that The Executive Office (TEO) put out a report at Halloween looking at the latest population figures for self-efficacy (alongside stats for locus of control - a similar concept - and life satisfaction).

Specifically, self-efficacy is a data measure for two indicators that help track the PfG’s high-level outcomes (namely confidence, and confidence of the population aged 60 years or older).

In order to measure an individual’s self-efficacy, TEO presents five “statement questions”, each requiring a numerical score from one to five:

  1. I can always manage to solve difficult problems if I try hard enough.
  2. I am confident that I could deal efficiently with unexpected events.
  3. I can remain calm when facing difficulties because I can rely on my coping abilities.
  4. When I am confronted with a problem, I can usually find several solutions.
  5. No matter what comes my way, I’m usually able to handle it.

Respondents’ scores for each question are added up, providing a self-efficacy score of between five (extremely low) and 25 (extremely high). Scores of 17 and under are considered low, while 18 or over is considered high, although evidently this is a sliding scale.

Per the latest findings, covering 2018-19, the mean self-efficacy score for the NI population is 19.3, which TEO said was not significantly different to all previous years it has been measured (annually since 2014-15), and which TEO says “suggests that, on average, people in Northern Ireland have a relatively high belief in their abilities to produce results or effects and this belief appears to have remained stable over the last five years.”

Why is this so important?


Self-efficacy is a relatively modern idea. The term was coined in 1977 by psychologist Albert Bandura, who saw it as an immensely important factor in human behaviour.

Since then, the correlation between self-efficacy and other positive outcomes has been demonstrated, and this is what makes it such a powerful measure of behaviour and circumstance.

A paper by academics from RMIT and La Trobe, two universities in Melbourne, Australia, noted that: “Psychologists have found that if a person has lower levels of self-efficacy they are more likely to focus on feelings of failure rather than success. People with higher levels of self-efficacy are more likely to cope better in adverse situations.”

The latest figures from TEO show that people who live in areas of higher deprivation tend to have lower self-efficacy than those in areas of lower deprivation, people with jobs tend to have higher self-efficacy than those without, and people with health problems broadly have lower self-efficacy than those in better health.

Since measurements began in NI, in 2014-15, the estimated mean score for self-efficacy of the population (aged 16+) has remained relatively stable (either 19.2 or 19.3 each year).

However, there has been progress, because the proportion of people who have low self-efficacy has fallen significantly over the past five years. In 2014-15 this comprised 24.3% of the population, whereas now that figure is 19.2%.

Moreover, underneath that total-population average score – which, this year, is 19.3 – there are all manner of interesting results and points of difference, some of which are predictable, and others not:

  • Men have, on average, a significantly higher score than women (19.5 vs 19.0).
  • Those living in the most deprived quintile of areas (Q1) have on average a lower self-efficacy than those in the next-lowest quintile (Q2), while Q2 is lower on average than Q3, which is lower than Q4, which is lower than Q5, the least deprived 20% of areas in NI (scores are 18.7, 19.1, 19.3, 19.6 and 19.7, respectively).
  • People in employment have a significantly higher score than those who were economically inactive – 19.9 vs 18.4.
  • Those who described their religion as other/non-determined had a significantly higher score than Protestants and Catholics – 19.7, 19.3 and 19.2, respectively.
  • Individuals who were responsible for one or more dependants have a significantly higher score than those who were not responsible for a dependant – 19.6 vs 19.0.

Developing practice

The latest PfG update notes that:

  • Those with high self-efficacy have confidence in their abilities and produce sustained efforts to achieve goals.
  • Those with low self-efficacy often doubt their capabilities, are less ambitious and give up on their aims when challenged.

Self-efficacy affects the decisions a person makes and what they see as achievable. Low self-efficacy or a lack of belief in one’s own abilities can limit the choices a person makes and limit the effort they are willing to put in. Self-efficacy has been shown to influence physical and mental health, learning and achievement, career and job satisfaction and family relations. Interventions to increase self-efficacy in specific groups can improve collective resilience and capacity. This can lead to positive social change in communities, and can improve social cohesion and inter-group relations.

All this, simply put, is why it is given a place of importance in designing public policy. Self-efficacy cuts across many major sectors and provides a great indication of where people’s lives are and where they might go.

For anyone interested in creating a better society – including, of course, the voluntary and community sector – self-efficacy is something that demands attention.

Right now, the average self-efficacy score for adults in Northern Ireland who live in good health is 20.0, for those with fair health it is 18.5, and for those in poor health it is 16.5.

That might not be surprising, but it should leave us thinking about the effects poor health (as an example) has on an individual’s circumstances, about the pressing need to improve health – and also about how we can reduce the effects of poor health, or unemployment, or poverty on an individual’s self-efficacy.

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