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Social Cognitive Theory and Self-Efficacy


The Social Cognitive theory was created by Canadian Albert Bandura. He created this theory while studying motivation. He saw how behaviorist at the time, were not taking into consideration the inner workings of a cognitive approach to motivation. He also saw the lack of situational awareness in psychoanalysis. By blending environment, behavior, and cognitive responses into The Social Cognitive Theory he theoretically impacted how we view motivation and goals today. Bandura used these to form what he called the Triadic Reciprocal Determinism. Each part representing a point on a triangle that flow into each other. One just as important as the next.

While behavior and environment play an important role in The Social Cognitive Theory, we focused mainly on the cognitive portion in our case study. The cognitive portion being self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is one cog piece of the cognitive process of The Social Cognitive Theory. Self-efficacy is about a person’s belief in their own abilities to successfully do a specific task or goal. While somewhat similar to self-esteem, self-esteem is more what a person feels about themselves in general. While both are cognitive judgements about yourself, self-efficacy is of your capabilities and self-esteem is your self-worth. (PSU WC, 2016, L07, p. 5)

There are four essential “keys” that determine efficacy; performance outcomes, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and physiological feedback. See diagram below for more information about each key to efficacy.



Case Study:

Jefferson Informational Services is a company that works with organizations in need of qualified business leads for their marketing efforts.  Clients provide a description of their core competencies and a list of types of businesses, employee counts, and revenue size representing their target markets. Jefferson provides a list of C-Level executives and contact information (verified direct telephone numbers and email addresses) at companies that fit the target to their clients for use in prospecting for new business.

Jefferson posts a job opportunity on their Employee Information site defining open interviews for a supervisory position that would lead one of the verification teams.  Robert Miller, a five-year employee of Jefferson as a member of one of the verification teams, decides to bid for the job.  Although he has never held a supervisory position, he has always been a top performer on his team, he jumps at opportunities for continuing education offered by the organization, and he is a cheerleader for his team.  Based on his tenure, exemplary performance, and drive/success, he is promoted to the position.  Robert has a strong self-efficacy moving into the position because he considers himself relatively intelligent, his personal experiences at the company have been positive and long-lasting, he has observed other team supervisors and believes he has the same talents (if not more), he has received significant encouragement from his peers and members of management to take on this new role, and he feels regenerated and exuberant toward the opportunities to lead the team, increase productivity, and increase members knowledge to aid in their success.

This case study suggests that, moving into a supervisory role, Robert is very confident in his ability to handle this job assignment, and for good reason.  He has experiences that meet the expert opinions of four types of information that lead to a high level of self-efficacy: performance outcomes, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and physiological feedback (PSU, 2016, L07, p. 6).

In consideration of Robert’s rich level of self-efficacy going into the position, it is expected that his level of motivation is high as well.  Additionally, Mr. Miller is successful at creating goals for himself as he begins his new journey into a management role.  According to PSU (2016, L07, p. 4), self-efficacy is not a constant, and it, as well as motivation, can wax and wane with situational factors and confidence levels.  Let’s consider possible outcomes based these variables.

Example 1:

It is recognized by management that Robert has tons of experience, but no "supervisory" experience.  The company proceeds with supervisory management training heavy in the beginning and with a "mentor" long-term manager available at all times.  Robert's self-efficacy is high and the additional training provides the needed support ("tools") for him to excel as he expected.

Example 2:

Management assumes, since he has been an exemplary and high performing team member, Robert will also excel as a supervisor.  He is sent primarily out on his own to supervise the team with little oversight or input.  He turns the team from a high performing team to a high problem team.  High self-efficacy with insufficient tools (in this case training) can equal missed goals and reduction in performance.

Example 3: 

Robert’s high self-efficacy, confidence in himself, and those that supported him early on, leads him to believe that this change will be easy, and very little effort on his part will be necessary to manage this cohesive team and produce the necessary results.  This overconfidence gets Robert into a sticky situation; quotas and deadlines are missed and senior management is questioning their decision to put Mr. Miller in the position.

Example 4:

Robert’s self-efficacy quickly deteriorate because, once in the position, other supervisors share with him how this has been a difficult team, and that previous leaders were terminated for not being able to control them.  He begins to see the team’s numbers drop and sees this information as a sign of things to come; that he will be the next supervisor in a line of those that have failed with this team.  The downward spiral of his self-efficacy and little direction from management lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy of poor team performance.

Performance Outcomes:

You have probably heard a saying that you should not let your past determine your future.  Have you ever stopped to think where such a thought might come from?  Perhaps this thought is rooted in performance outcomes of the four self-efficacy factors.  Performance outcomes are personal experiences that every person has had in their past (PSU WC, 2016, L07, p. 6).  These personal experiences can be viewed as being good or bad, which helps lead to high or low self-efficacy.  When a personal experience is considered good, it fosters feelings of high self-efficacy.  In contrast, when a personal experience is considered bad, feelings of low self-efficacy are created. 

Going back to the original example of our team member who was recently promoted to the supervisor position, one can see that feelings of high or low self-efficacy can be created depending on the situation.  For instance, if the newly promoted supervisor is given the proper training and a mentor to help with decision making, then the new supervisor will have high self-efficacy due to making better decisions that will make the new supervisor more confident in the future.  However, if the new supervisor is not set up for success and does not have the correct training, their self-efficacy could be altered.  The new supervisor might make some unfortunate decisions leading to poor performance, while creating low self-efficacy.  Depending on the performance outcomes, the new supervisor could be confident to lead a team or lack the necessary confidence.  Therefore, “performance outcomes are the most influential source of self-efficacy” because these outcomes are rooted in our personal experiences (PSU WC, 2016, L07, p.6).  As humans, we tend to forget very little which might lead us to say that you should not let your past determine your future results.    

Vicarious Experiences:

Vicarious experiences are utilized in motivation by “observing other people’s performance and comparing their competence with your own” (PSU WC, 2016, L07, p. 6). The belief that you are as capable as someone who is succeeding at a certain task, leads you to believe that you can succeed. On the other hand, seeing someone you believe you are equal to fail at a task can lead you to believe you will not be successful. These types of experience are generally very motivating, but are generally weak indicators of success.

An example of the utility of vicarious experiences can best be illustrated with the college experience of many military members. Often, people in the military will desire a college education, but lack the self-efficacy to pursue their desires. They often believe it will be too time consuming, too difficult, and too expensive. The catalyst that sparks many members embarking on their college journey is meeting another person who is navigating college successfully. They begin to feel that if their peer can get good grades, perhaps they can as well. Vicarious experiences amongst servicemen lead to many college degrees.

Verbal Persuasion:

Verbal persuasions refer to either the positive or negative verbal exchanges that an individual has within his or her social environment (PSU WC, 2016, L07, p. 6).  When an individual receives verbal encouragement, that individual is likely to have increased self-efficacy, ultimately leading to greater motivation when attempting to complete a specific task or goal.  When an individual receives verbal discouragement, whether it be about previous attempts at similar tasks or about the task at hand, an individual is likely to have decreased motivation which may lead to poorer performance or overall disinterest.  Verbal persuasion is a readily available tool that many individuals encounter on a near daily basis that helps shape their overall self-efficacy.  

In our case study, example 4 clearly shows how verbal persuasion ultimately led to decreased self-efficacy for Robert Miller and poor team performance.  Although Robert's self-efficacy was initially high, once he was told how difficult the job was and that he would struggle dealing with his difficult team, he began to lose confidence in his leadership capabilities and his overall ability to lead his team.  Once his self-efficacy began to diminish, he slowly lost motivation to keep his team on track, ultimately leading to the downward spiral of his team, resulting in his failure as their manager.  

Physiological Feedback:

Physiological feedback is “the sensation that one receives from the body during performance” (Redmond, 2010-2016). The perception of emotional arousal is influential when determining beliefs and self-efficiency. Negative reactions to arousal such as sweaty palms, a racing heart, or anxiety may lead a person to think they are less capable of performing a task than if they had been calmer. Conversely, if a person is confident the positive emotions from arousal may heavily influence a person to work harder to achieve the goals they desire.

 Example 3 depicts Robert's high self-efficacy and confidence. Robert's physiological feedback leads him to believe the changes needed to manage a cohesive team and produce necessary results will be easy. The support felt by Robert from previous experiences proves the Social Cognitive Theory that acquisitions will lead to the same results based on observed social experiences and interactions. Robert's superiors notice he is not meeting their expectations. Robert realizes he was overconfident and receives negative physiological feedback. In Robert's case his positive emotions from a leadership challenge heavily influenced Robert. However, the desired effect of harder work and achieving goals was not seen by superiors. In contrast, Robert did not lead the team well and he missed quotas and deadlines.


The Social Cognitive Theory was created by Albert Bandura in 1986 as his attempt to explain how various determinants such as behavioral factors, personal factors, and environmental factors all work together to determine and individuals behavior (PSU WC, 2016, L07, p. 3).  These three factors led Bandura to create what he called the Triadic Reciprocal Determinism, where either behavioral, personal, or environmental factors play a lead in determining behavior and motivation (Redmond, 2010-2016).  A major part of the Social Cognitive Theory is the Process of Goal Realization, as seen in the graphic below.  This process is comprised of four cognitive process: self-evaluation, self-observation, self-reaction, and self-efficacy.  These four processes are interrelated in the fact that an individual must go through all four of these processes in order to reach their goal attainment and proper motivation.  

Of these four process, our case study focused primarily on self-efficacy and how and individuals beliefs in his or her ability to complete a specific task or goal heavily influences their overall motivation towards achieving that said goal (PSU WC, 2016, L07, p. 4).  In our case study, Robert Miller experienced the four primary sources of information that affect self-efficacy which are performance outcomes, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and psychological feedback (Redmond, 2010-2016).  As evident in our case study, depending on the source of information that Robert decides to rely upon, his self-efficacy will be greatly impacted.  If positive information is received, as such with his performance outcomes after being promoted to a supervisor position with minimal leadership experience, his self-efficacy will be very high, leading to high motivation and self-confidence that he can complete any task.  If negative information is received however, as such with his psychological feedback from his superiors, his self-efficacy plummeted and he quickly lost motivation and his performance suffered greatly.  Regardless of a person's initial self-efficacy, it is important to remember that self-efficacy is an evolving process and can either wax or wane depending on four primary sources of information.



Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215. doi:

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Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 248-287. Retrieved from

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co, New York, NY. Retrieved from

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2016). PSYCH484 Lesson 7: Self-Efficacy Theory: Do I Think that I Can Succeed in my Work? Retrieved February 23, 2016. From:

Redmond, B., last modified by McNabb, H.  (2010-2016).  PSYCH 484 Wiki: 7. Self-Efficacy and Social Cognitive Theories.  Retrieved on February 27, 2016 from: 7. Self-Efficacy and Social Cognitive Theories

Zimmerman, B. (2001).  Theories of self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview and analysis. Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theoretical perspectives (2nd ed.). (pp. 1-37) Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, Mahwah, NJ. Retrieved from

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