SOCIAL COGNITIVE THEORY : An Agentic Perspective

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December 11, 2000
Annual Reviews
Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2001. 52:1–26
Copyright c 2001 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved

Albert Bandura
Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305-2131;
e-mail: [email protected]

Key Words
biosocial coevolution, collective ef?cacy, emergent properties,
human agency, self-ef?cacy
s Abstract
The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s
life is the essence of humanness. Human agency is characterized by a number of
core features that operate through phenomenal and functional consciousness. These
include the temporal extension of agency through intentionality and forethought, self-
regulation by self-reactive in?uence, and self-re?ectiveness about one’s capabilities,
quality of functioning, and the meaning and purpose of one’s life pursuits. Personal
agency operates within a broad network of sociostructural in?uences. In these agentic
transactions, people are producers as well as products of social systems. Social cogni-
tive theory distinguishes among three modes of agency: direct personal agency, proxy
agency that relies on others to act on one’s behest to secure desired outcomes, and
collective agency exercised through socially coordinative and interdependent effort.
Growing transnational embeddedness and interdependence are placing a premium on
collective ef?cacy to exercise control over personal destinies and national life.
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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PHYSICALISTIC THEORY OF HUMAN AGENCY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
CORE FEATURES OF HUMAN AGENCY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Intentionality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Forethought . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Self-Reactiveness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Self-Re?ectiveness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
AGENTIC MANAGEMENT OF FORTUITY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
MODES OF HUMAN AGENCY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
IN CHANGING SOCIETIES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
IN BIOSOCIAL COEVOLUTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18

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To be an agent is to intentionally make things happen by one’s actions. Agency em-
bodies the endowments, belief systems, self-regulatory capabilities and distributed
structures and functions through which personal in?uence exercised, rather than
residing as a discrete entity in a particular place. The core features of agency en-
able people to play a part in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal
with changing times. Before presenting the agentic perspective of social cognitive
theory, the paradigm shifts that the ?eld of psychology has undergone in its short
history warrant a brief discussion. In these theoretical transformations, the core
metaphors have changed but for the most part, the theories grant humans little, if
any, agentic capabilities.
Much of the early psychological theorizing was founded on behavioristic principles
that embraced an input-output model linked by an internal conduit that makes
behavior possible but exerts no in?uence of its own on behavior. In this view,
human behavior was shaped and controlled automatically and mechanically by
environmental stimuli. This line of theorizing was eventually put out of vogue by
the advent of the computer, which likened the mind to a biological calculator. This
model ?lled the internal conduit with a lot of representational and computational
operations created by smart and inventive thinkers.
If computers can perform cognitive operations that solve problems, regula-
tive thought could no longer be denied to humans. The input-output model was
supplanted by an input-linear throughput-output model. The mind as digital com-
puter became the conceptual model for the times. Although the mindless organism
became a more cognitive one, it was still devoid of consciousness and agentic capa-
bilities. For decades, the reigning computer metaphor of human functioning was a
linear computational system in which information is fed through a central proces-
sor that cranks out solutions according to preordained rules. The architecture of the
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linear computer at the time dictated the conceptual model of human functioning.
The linear model was, in turn, supplanted by more dynamically organized
computational models that perform multiple operations simultaneously and inter-
actively to mimic better how the human brain works. In this model, environmental
input activates a multifaceted dynamic throughput that produces the output. These
dynamic models include multilevel neural networks with intentional functions
lodged in a subpersonal executive network operating without any consciousness
via lower subsystems. Sensory organs deliver up information to a neural network
acting as the mental machinery that does the construing, planning, motivating, and
regulating nonconsciously. Harr´e (1983) notes in his analysis of computationalism
that it is not people but their componentized subpersonal parts that are orchestrating
the courses of action. The personal level involves phenomenal consciousness and

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the purposive use of information and self-regulative means to make desired things
Consciousness is the very substance of mental life that not only makes life
personally manageable but worth living. A functional consciousness involves
purposive accessing and deliberative processing of information for selecting, con-
structing, regulating, and evaluating courses of action. This is achieved through
intentional mobilization and productive use of semantic and pragmatic representa-
tions of activities, goals, and other future events. In his discerning book on expe-
rienced cognition, Carlson (1997) underscores the central role that consciousness
plays in the cognitive regulation of action and the ?ow of mental events. There
have been some attempts to reduce consciousness to an epiphenomenal by-product
of activities at the subpersonal level, to an executive subsystem in the informa-
tion processing machinery, or to an attentional aspect of information processing.
Like the legendary ponderous elephant that goes unnoticed, in these subpersonal
accounts of consciousness there is no experiencing person conceiving of ends
and acting purposefully to attain them. However, these reductive accounts remain
conceptually problematic because they omit prime features of humanness such
as subjectivity, deliberative self-guidance, and re?ective self-reactiveness. For
reasons to be given shortly, consciousness cannot be reduced to a nonfunctional
by-product of the output of a mental process realized mechanically at nonconscious
lower levels. Why would an epiphenomenal consciousness that can do nothing
evolve and endure as a reigning psychic environment in people’s lives? Without a
phenomenal and functional consciousness people are essentially higher-level au-
tomatons undergoing actions devoid of any subjectivity or conscious control. Nor
do such beings possess a meaningful phenomenal life or a continuing self-identity
derived from how they live their life and re?ect upon it.
Green & Vervaeke (1996) observed that originally many connectionists and
computationalists regarded their conceptual models as approximations of cogni-
tive activities. More recently, however, some have become eliminative materialists,
likening cognitive factors to the phlogiston of yesteryear. In this view, people do
not act on beliefs, goals, aspirations, and expectations. Rather, activation of their
network structure at a subpersonal level makes them do things. In a critique of
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eliminativism, Greenwood (1992) notes that cognitions are contentful psycho-
logical factors whose meaning does not depend on the explanatory propositions
in which they ?gure. Phlogiston neither had any evidential basis nor explana-
tory or predictive value. In contrast, cognitive factors do quite well in predicting
human behavior and guiding effective interventions. To make their way success-
fully through a complex world full of challenges and hazards, people have to make
good judgments about their capabilities, anticipate the probable effects of different
events and courses of action, size up sociostructural opportunities and constraints,
and regulate their behavior accordingly. These belief systems are a working model
of the world that enables people to achieve desired outcomes and avoid untoward
ones. Forethoughtful, generative, and re?ective capabilities are, therefore, vital
for survival and human progress. Agentic factors that are explanatory, predictive,

December 11, 2000
Annual Reviews
and of demonstrated functional value may be translatable and modeled in another
theoretical language but not eliminatable (Rottschaefer 1985, 1991).
As has already been noted, people are not just onlooking hosts of internal mecha-
nisms orchestrated by environmental events. They are agents of experiences rather
than simply undergoers of experiences. The sensory, motor, and cerebral systems
are tools people use to accomplish the tasks and goals that give meaning, direction,
and satisfaction to their lives (Bandura 1997, Harr´e & Gillet 1994).
Research on brain development underscores the in?uential role that agentic
action plays in shaping the neuronal and functional structure of the brain (Diamond
1988, Kolb & Whishaw 1998). It is not just exposure to stimulation, but agentic
action in exploring, manipulating, and in?uencing the environment that counts.
By regulating their motivation and activities, people produce the experiences that
form the functional neurobiological substrate of symbolic, social, psychomotor,
and other skills. The nature of these experiences is, of course, heavily dependent
on the types of social and physical environments people select and construct.
An agentic perspective fosters lines of research that provide new insights into
the social construction of the functional structure of the human brain (Eisenberg
1995). This is a realm of inquiry in which psychology can make fundamental
unique contributions to the biopsychosocial understanding of human development,
adaptation, and change.
Social cognitive theory subscribes to a model of emergent interactive agency
(Bandura 1986, 1999a). Thoughts are not disembodied, immaterial entities that
exist apart from neural events. Cognitive processes are emergent brain activities
that exert determinative in?uence. Emergent properties differ qualitatively from
their constituent elements and therefore are not reducible to them. To use Bunge’s
(1977) analogy, the unique emergent properties of water, such as ?uidity, viscosity,
and transparency are not simply the aggregate properties of its microcomponents
of oxygen and hydrogen. Through their interactive effects they are transformed
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into new phenomena.
One must distinguish between the physical basis of thought and its deliberative
construction and functional use. The human mind is generative, creative, proac-
tive, and re?ective, not just reactive. The digni?ed burial of the dualistic Descartes
forces us to address the formidable explanatory challenge for a physicalistic the-
ory of human agency and a nondualistic cognitivism. How do people operate as
thinkers of the thoughts that exert determinative in?uence on their actions? What
are the functional circuitries of forethought, planful proaction, aspiration, self-
appraisal, and self-re?ection? Even more important, how are they intentionally
Cognitive agents regulate their actions by cognitive downward causation as
well as undergo upward activation by sensory stimulation (Sperry 1993). People

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Annual Reviews
can designedly conceive unique events and different novel courses of action and
choose to execute one of them. Under the inde?nite prompt to concoct something
new, for example, one can deliberatively construct a whimsically novel scenario
of a graceful hippopotamus attired in a chartreuse tuxedo hang gliding over lunar
craters while singing the mad scene from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. In-
tentionality and agency raise the fundamental question of how people bring about
activities over which they command personal control that activate the subpersonal
neurophysiological events for realizing particular intentions and aspirations. Thus,
in acting on the well-grounded belief that exercise enhances health, individuals
get themselves to perform physical activities that produce health promotive bio-
logical events without observing or knowing how the activated events work at the
subpersonal level. The health outcome is the product of both agent causality and
event causality, operating at different phases of the sequence.
Our psychological discipline is proceeding down two major divergent routes.
One line of theorizing seeks to clarify the basic mechanisms governing human
functioning. This line of inquiry centers heavily on microanalyses of the inner
workings of the mind in processing, representing, retrieving, and using the coded
information to manage various task demands, and locating where the brain activity
for these events occurs. These cognitive processes are generally studied disembod-
ied from interpersonal life, purposeful pursuits, and self-re?ectiveness. People are
sentient, purposive beings. Faced with prescribed task demands, they act mindfully
to make desired things happen rather than simply undergo happenings in which
situational forces activate their subpersonal structures that generate solutions. In
experimental situations, participants try to ?gure out what is wanted of them;
they construct hypotheses and re?ectively test their adequacy by evaluating the
results of their actions; they set personal goals and otherwise motivate themselves
to perform in ways that please or impress others or bring self-satisfaction; when
they run into trouble they engage in self-enabling or self-debilitating self-talk;
if they construe their failures as presenting surmountable challenges they redouble
their efforts, but they drive themselves to despondency if they read their failures
as indicants of personal de?ciencies; if they believe they are being exploited, co-
erced, disrespected, or manipulated, they respond apathetically, oppositionally,
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or hostilely. These motivational and other self-regulative factors that govern the
manner and level of personal engagement in prescribed activities are simply taken
for granted in cognitive science rather than included in causal structures (Carlson
The second line of theorizing centers on the macroanalytic workings of so-
cially situated factors in human development, adaptation, and change. Within this
theoretical framework, human functioning is analyzed as socially interdependent,
richly contextualized, and conditionally orchestrated within the dynamics of var-
ious societal subsystems and their complex interplay. The mechanisms linking
sociostructural factors to action in this macroanalytic approach are left largely un-
explained, however. A comprehensive theory must merge the analytic dualism by
integrating personal and social foci of causation within a uni?ed causal structure.

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In the paths of in?uence, sociostructural in?uences operate through psychological
mechanisms to produce behavioral effects. We shall return later to this issue and
to the bidirectionality of in?uence between social structure and personal agency.
The core features of personal agency address the issue of what it means to be
human. The main agentic features are discussed in the sections that follow.
Agency refers to acts done intentionally. For example, a person who smashed
a vase in an antique shop upon being tripped by another shopper would not be
considered the agent of the event. Human transactions, of course, involve situa-
tional inducements, but they do not operate as determinate forces. Individuals can
choose to behave accommodatively or, through the exercise of self-in?uence, to
behave otherwise. An intention is a representation of a future course of action to
be performed. It is not simply an expectation or prediction of future actions but a
proactive commitment to bringing them about. Intentions and actions are different
aspects of a functional relation separated in time. It is, therefore, meaningful to
speak of intentions grounded in self-motivators affecting the likelihood of actions
at a future point in time.
Planning agency can be used to produce different outcomes. Outcomes are
not the characteristics of agentive acts; they are the consequences of them. As
Davidson (1971) explains, actions intended to serve a certain purpose can cause
quite different things to happen. He cites the example of the melancholic Hamlet,
who intentionally stabbed the man behind a tapestry believing it to be the king,
only to discover, much to his horror, that he had killed Polonius. The killing of
the hidden person was intentional, but the wrong victim was done in. Some of
the actions performed in the belief that they will bring desired outcomes actually
produce outcomes that were neither intended nor wanted. For example, it is not
uncommon for individuals to contribute to their own misery through intentional
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transgressive acts spawned by gross miscalculation of consequences. Some social
policies and practices originally designed with well-meaning intent turn out bad
because their harmful effects were unforeseen. In short, the power to originate
actions for given purposes is the key feature of personal agency. Whether the ex-
ercise of that agency has bene?cial or detrimental effects, or produces unintended
consequences, is another matter.
Intentions center on plans of action. Future-directed plans are rarely speci-
?ed in full detail at the outset. It would require omniscience to anticipate every
situational detail. Moreover, turning visualized futurities into reality requires
proximal or present-directed intentions that guide and keep one moving ahead
(Bandura 1991b). In the functionalist approach to intentional agency enunciated
by Bratman (1999), initial partial intentions are ?lled in and adjusted, revised,

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re?ned or even reconsidered in the face of new information during execution of
an intention. We shall see shortly, however, that realization of forward look-
ing plans requires more than an intentional state because it is not causally suf?-
cient by itself. Other self-regulatory aspects of agency enter into the successful
implementation of intentions. To add a further functional dimension to inten-
tion, most human pursuits involve other participating agents. Such joint activi-
ties require commitment to a shared intention and coordination of interdependent
plans of action. The challenge in collaborative activities is to meld diverse self-
interests in the service of common goals and intentions collectively pursued in
The temporal extension of agency goes beyond forward-directed planning. The
future time perspective manifests itself in many different ways. People set goals
for themselves, anticipate the likely consequences of prospective actions, and
select and create courses of action likely to produce desired outcomes and avoid
detrimental ones (Bandura 1991b, Feather 1982, Locke & Latham 1990). Through
the exercise of forethought, people motivate themselves and guide their actions in
anticipation of future events. When projected over a long time course on matters
of value, a forethoughtful perspective provides direction, coherence, and meaning
to one’s life. As people progress in their life course they continue to plan ahead,
reorder their priorities, and structure their lives accordingly.
Future events cannot, of course, be causes of current motivation and action
because they have no actual existence. However, by being represented cognitively
in the present, foreseeable future events are converted into current motivators and
regulators of behavior. In this form of anticipatory self-guidance, behavior is
motivated and directed by projected goals and anticipated outcomes rather than
being pulled by an unrealized future state.
People construct outcome expectations from observed conditional relations be-
tween environmental events in the world around them, and the outcomes given
actions produce (Bandura 1986). The ability to bring anticipated outcomes to bear
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on current activities promotes foresightful behavior. It enables people to tran-
scend the dictates of their immediate environment and to shape and regulate the
present to ?t a desired future. In regulating their behavior by outcome expecta-
tions, people adopt courses of action that are likely to produce positive outcomes
and generally discard those that bring unrewarding or punishing outcomes. How-
ever, anticipated material and social outcomes are not the only kind of incentives
that in?uence human behavior, as a crude functionalism would suggest. If actions
were performed only on behalf of anticipated external rewards and punishments,
people would behave like weather vanes, constantly shifting direction to con-
form to whatever in?uence happened to impinge upon them at the moment. In
actuality, people display considerable self-direction in the face of competing in-
?uences. After they adopt personal standards, people regulate their behavior by

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self-evaluative outcomes, which may augment or override the in?uence of external
An agent has to be not only a planner and forethinker, but a motivator and self-
regulator as well. Having adopted an intention and an action plan, one cannot
simply sit back and wait for the appropriate performances to appear. Agency
thus involves not only the deliberative ability to make choices and action plans,
but the ability to give shape to appropriate courses of action and to motivate and
regulate their execution. This multifaceted self-directedness operates through self-
regulatory processes that link thought to action. The self-regulation of motivation,
affect, and action is governed by a set of self-referent subfunctions. These include
self-monitoring, performance self-guidance via personal standards, and corrective
self-reactions (Bandura 1986, 1991b).
Monitoring one’s pattern of behavior and the cognitive and environmental con-
ditions under which it occurs is the ?rst step toward doing something to affect
it. Actions give rise to self-reactive in?uence through performance comparison
with personal goals and standards. Goals, rooted in a value system and a sense of
personal identity, invest activities with meaning and purpose. Goals motivate by
enlisting self-evaluative engagement in activities rather than directly. By making
self-evaluation conditional on matching personal standards, people give direction
to their pursuits and create self-incentives to sustain their efforts for goal attain-
ment. They do things that give them self-satisfaction and a sense of pride and
self-worth, and refrain from behaving in ways that give rise to self-dissatisfaction,
self-devaluation, and self-censure.
Goals do not automatically activate the self-in?uences that govern motivation
and action. Evaluative self-engagement through goal setting is affected by the
characteristics of goals, namely, their speci?city, level of challenge and tempo-
ral proximity. General goals are too inde?nite and noncommitting to serve as
guides and incentives. Strong interest and engrossment in activities is sparked
by challenging goals. The self-regulative effectiveness of goals depends greatly
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on how far into the future they are projected. Proximal subgoals mobilize self-
in?uences and direct what one does in the here and now. Distal goals alone set
the general course of pursuits but are too far removed in time to provide effective
incentives and guides for present action, given inviting competing activities at
hand. Progress toward valued futures is best achieved by hierarchically structured
goal systems combining distal aspirations with proximal self-guidance. Goals em-
bodying self-engaging properties serve as powerful motivators of action (Bandura
1991b, Locke & Latham 1990).
Moral agency forms an important part of self-directedness. Psychological the-
ories of morality focus heavily on moral reasoning to the neglect of moral conduct.
A complete theory of moral agency must link moral knowledge and reasoning to
moral conduct. This requires an agentic theory of morality rather than one con?ned
mainly to cognitions about morality. Moral reasoning is translated into actions

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through self-regulatory mechanisms, which include moral judgment of the right-
ness or wrongness of conduct evaluated against personal standards and situational
circumstances, and self-sanctions by which moral agency is exercised (Bandura
In competency development and aspirational pursuits, the personal standards of
merit are progressively raised as knowledge and competencies are expanded and
challenges are met. In social and moral conduct, the self-regulatory standards are
more stable. People do not change from week to week what they regard as right
or wrong or good or bad. After people adopt a standard of morality, their negative
self-sanctions for actions that violate their personal standards, and their positive
self-sanctions for conduct faithful to their moral standards serve as the regulatory
in?uences (Bandura 1991b). The capacity for self-sanctions gives meaning to
moral agency. The anticipatory evaluative self-reactions provide the motivational
as well as the cognitive regulators of moral conduct. Self-sanctions keep conduct
in line with personal standards. Individuals with a strong communal ethic will act
to further the welfare of others even at costs to their self-interest. In the face of
situational pressures to behave inhumanely, people can choose to behave other-
wise by exerting counteracting self-in?uence. It is not uncommon for individuals
to invest their self-worth so strongly in certain convictions that they will submit
to harsh and punitive treatment rather than cede to what they regard as unjust or
The exercise of moral agency has dual aspects—inhibitive and proactive
(Bandura 1999b). The inhibitive form is manifested in the power to refrain from
behaving inhumanely. The proactive form of morality is expressed in the power
to behave humanely.
Moral standards do not function as ?xed internal regulators of conduct, how-
ever. Self-regulatory mechanisms do not operate unless they are enlisted in given
activities. There are many psychosocial maneuvers by which moral self-reactions
can be selectively disengaged from inhumane conduct (Bandura 1991b). Several
of these mechanisms of moral disengagement center on the cognitive reconstrual
of the conduct itself. This is achieved by making harmful conduct personally and
socially acceptable by portraying it as serving socially worthy or moral purposes,
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masking it in sanitizing euphemistic language, and creating exonerating compar-
ison with worse inhumanities. Other mechanisms reduce the sense of personal
agency for harmful conduct through diffusion and displacement of responsibility.
Moral self-sanctions are also weakened or disengaged at the outcome locus of
the control process by ignoring, minimizing, or disputing the injurious effects of
one’s conduct. The ?nal set of practices disengage restraining self-sanctions by
dehumanizing the victims, attributing bestial qualities to them, and blaming them
for bringing the suffering on themselves. High moral disengagers experience low
guilt over harmful conduct, are less prosocial, and are more prone to vengeful
rumination (Bandura et al 1996b). Through selective disengagement of moral
agency, people who otherwise behave righteously and considerately perpetrate
transgressions and inhumanities in other spheres of their lives (Bandura 1999b,
Zimbardo 1995).

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People are not only agents of action but self-examiners of their own functioning.
The metacognitive capability to re?ect upon oneself and the adequacy of one’s
thoughts and actions is another distinctly core human feature of agency. Through
re?ective self-consciousness, people evaluate their motivation, values, and the
meaning of their life pursuits. It is at this higher level of self-re?ectiveness that
individuals address con?icts in motivational inducements and choose to act in favor
of one over another. Veri?cation of the soundness of one’s thinking also relies
heavily on self-re?ective means (Bandura 1986). In this metacognitive activity,
people judge the correctness of their predictive and operative thinking against
the outcomes of their actions, the effects that other people’s actions produce,
what others believe, deductions from established knowledge and what necessarily
follows from it.
Among the mechanisms of personal agency, none is more central or pervasive
than people’s beliefs in their capability to exercise some measure of control over
their own functioning and over environmental events (Bandura 1997). Ef?cacy
beliefs are the foundation of human agency. Unless people believe they can pro-
duce desired results and forestall detrimental ones by their actions, they have little
incentive to act or to persevere in the face of dif?culties. Whatever other factors
may operate as guides and motivators, they are rooted in the core belief that one
has the power to produce effects by one’s actions. Meta-analyses attest to the
in?uential role played by ef?cacy beliefs in human functioning (Holden 1991,
Holden et al 1990, Multon et al 1991, Stajkovic & Luthans 1998).
Perceived self-ef?cacy occupies a pivotal role in the causal structure of social
cognitive theory because ef?cacy beliefs affect adaptation and change not only in
their own right, but through their impact on other determinants (Bandura 1997,
Maddux 1995; Schwarzer 1992). Such beliefs in?uence whether people think pes-
simistically or optimistically and in ways that are self-enhancing or self-hindering.
Ef?cacy beliefs play a central role in the self-regulation of motivation through goal
challenges and outcome expectations. It is partly on the basis of ef?cacy beliefs
that people choose what challenges to undertake, how much effort to expend in the
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endeavor, how long to persevere in the face of obstacles and failures, and whether
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failures are motivating or demoralizing. The likelihood that people will act on the
outcomes they expect prospective performances to produce depends on their be-
liefs about whether or not they can produce those performances. A strong sense of
coping ef?cacy reduces vulnerability to stress and depression in taxing situations
and strengthens resiliency to adversity.
Ef?cacy beliefs also play a key role in shaping the courses lives take by in?uenc-
ing the types of activities and environments people choose to get into. Any factor
that in?uences choice behavior can profoundly affect the direction of personal
development. This is because the social in?uences operating in selected envi-
ronments continue to promote certain competencies, values, and interests long
after the decisional determinant has rendered its inaugurating effect. Thus, by