How do we know if we are capable of achieving what we want?

Jenni Hiltunen, August 2019.

Recovered on June 27, 2021 form https://www.artsy.net/artist/jenni-hiltunen

We all live with this question every day and, almost without realizing it, we make a series of mental calculations that lead to its answer. The issue is that, generally, we are not aware of the processing that we do of the information until it begins to show repeated failures with respect to the expected results. The question of what comes first whether the chicken or the egg has its parallel in the field of expectations: are our thoughts causing the results or are the results, from previous experiences, causing those thoughts with which we predispose ourselves to situations? To the rescue comes the renowned Ukrainian-Canadian psychologist, Albert Bandura, with his theory on expectations.

This theory is a subjective evaluation that consists of two fronts. On the one hand, an assessment of the specific behavior required to achieve the desired result —to pass an exam or to lose weight are some examples. Bandura calls this outcome expectations. The second refers to the analysis we carry out on our capacities: do we have the necessary ones to achieve our objective? Am I able to achieve what I set out to do? Bandura names it self-efficacy expectations. These two concepts are essential to understand the regulation of our motivation when undertaking a project.

There Is No Self-Efficacy Without Awareness

Self-efficacy is not a capacity that appears out of nowhere, as if by magic. No, you need to work on it, make an effort.

But how do we do it? Through self-knowledge that arises from self-reflection.

Specifically, there are four sources of information through which we develop an idea about the capacities we have to achieve our goals and we will see them below.

Emilio Villalba, Back home

Recovered on June 27, 2021 from https://emiliovillalbaart.com/back-home

What do I need to know about myself to assess my ability realistically?

1. Practice makes a master

We asked ourselves before; How do we get positive thoughts about capacities that we have not yet developed? Well, yes, to do this first things first: we must practice and do it until we achieve some level of satisfaction about our performance. It is the only way, and required, for all of us who were not born with the superpower of expertise without practice.

The second truism at this point has to do with the necessary and unavoidable practice time: after the year, but with regular exercise, I never tire of saying it, we will begin to see results in terms of perception of self-efficacy. This may seem crazy to us in our digital world, that of the rush, where success stories are exhibited every day; people who achieved what they longed for in the 8 minutes that their story lasts on YouTube, for example.

2. If he or she could, then so can I

What have you thought about on more than one occasion? Well, yes, it happens to all of us, because it is a mechanism that we carry almost in our DNA: Vicarious learning is called by cognitive-social psychologists.

The point is that, for that comparison to result in imitation, so that it does not end in frustration or abandonment, we need a series of fundamental requirements to be met:

  • Pick a role model SIMILAR to you. This is the case of the Mark Zuckerberg fans club. We have all dreamed of becoming, overnight, famous, successful, billionaires after discovering a secret code or who knows what. The point is, to follow the example of Zuckerber, this boy had been studying programming for years and collected A's at no less than Harvard University. So, if your situation is not similar, or close to his, you can hardly achieve the results you dream of. Remember: Success grows strong self-efficacy thinking, while failure often weakens that feeling, especially when it comes before self-efficacy is established. So be nice to yourself when comparing yourself.

  • Similar but COMPETENT. Choose a qualified model, someone who has been through the same situation but has managed to overcome it, since that way our attention is turned on and imitation is more attractive.

  • Relative DIFFICULTY in the task. Succeeding in an easy activity is redundant and therefore does not cause major adjustments in self-efficacy. On the other hand, masterfully solving a more complex task provides additional information that raises our thoughts about that ability.

  • The CONTEXT has its text. We always practice in a specific context, with certain variables. So, overcoming a task with outside help, for example, does not increase the feeling of self-efficacy because we tend not to acknowledge the involvement of our abilities. The same effect, on the perception of self-efficacy, occurs when, in unfortunate situations, we do not achieve our objective. It is that the more factors other than the ability are involved in the performance, the lower the ability to measure self-efficacy.

  • SUCCESS and FAILURE, nothing will be as you expected. Achieving victory after a minimum effort, but in difficult tasks, makes us feel that we have sufficient skills, while achieving the same goals as our colleagues, but with a lot of effort, makes us think that our capabilities are not so high. On the other hand, in terms of failure, if it occurs after we have made little effort, it will not be experienced as an affront to one's own ability, but if it occurs after greater involvement in the task, that does translate into a perception limited self-efficacy. Finally, failing in very easy situations is lethal on the perception of self-efficacy.

3. Tell me I'm doing it right and I'll keep doing it. But tell me, seriously!

The opinion of others about what we do is essential in moments of learning. If we receive compliments, we will most likely continue to do what we were doing. And the opposite will happen if we are not verbally rewarded.

When we talk about verbal reward we are referring to all the positive comments made by our close people: Teachers, the peer group, their families, etc.

This type of reinforcement manages to balance our self-perception of effectiveness because they make us understand that others trust our abilities. Therefore, a doubtful or negative feedback undermines our perception of self-efficacy in the moments in which we seek its consolidation.

However, not just any verbal reinforcement is stimulating, no. Only those based on real data, the real ones: Feedback that highlights personal ability is what increases effectiveness, especially in the early stages of skill learning.

4. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

Novelty generally makes us anxious. This is so here, in Madrid, and in China. However, we tend to interpret (irrationally) any manifestation of restlessness (blushing, sweating, stuttering, for example) as indicative of low ability or limited dexterity. While, a low level of concern, we associate it with virtue, wisdom.

Well, very well, being aware then of this cognitive bias, we have to focus on a better management of anxiety through effective coping strategies, such as: Meditation, visualization, Jacobson relaxation.

Don't let anxiety, normal and expected, make you believe that you are not capable.

Emilio Villalba, Where is my juul, 2018

Recovered on Jun 27, 2021 from https://vsco.co/wheres-my-juul/media/5bafad611b9a7f6a0ef82721

In short, awareness of what we are capable of achieving is the cherry on top of a process guided by the search for information. It is not simply a matter of setting our minds to something and waiting for it to happen. Nor is it a matter of setting our sights on a goal that is clearly (or perhaps not so clearly) far beyond our possibilities. Rather, the text aims to make us aware of the complex world of the foundations and techniques on which our perception of self-efficacy is developed. It is not easy to increase it, just as it is not easy to modify it.

In a digital world, where speculation is the currency of exchange, with the consequent anxiety/frustration/depression on the other side, information about what we can really achieve and what we cannot, can be our battle horse to avoid "fighting against windmills", as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra said, chapter VIII, Part One, Don Quixote of La Mancha, 1605.


Jericó, P. (2021, February 28). La trampa de las grandes expectativas. EL PAÍS, The global newspaper. https://elpais.com/eps/2021-02-27/la-trampa-de-las-grandes-expectativas.html

Prego, C. (2021, March 10). 60 años sin Rosalind Franklin, pionera en la estructura del ADN. Hipertextual. https://hipertextual.com/2018/04/rosalind-franklin-fotografia-51-adn

Constantino, M. J., Arnkoff, D. B., Glass, C. R., Ametrano, R. M., & Smith, J. Z. (2010). Expectations. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67(2), 184–192. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20754

Teoría de la autoeficacia de Bandura (Leire Gartzia Fernández). (2018, January 15). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8EZztFUDyI

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Camposeco Torres, M. (2012), La autoeficacia como variable en la motivación intrínseca y extrínseca en matemáticas a través de un criterio étnico, doctoral dissertation, https://eprints.ucm.es/id/eprint/16670/1/T34002.pdf

De La Cruz Vargas, J. A. (2019). REVISTA INDEXADA EN SCIELO. Revista de La Facultad de Medicina Humana, 19(4), 7–8. https://doi.org/10.25176/rfmh.v19i4.2332

Author Photo

María José Puebla

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