How self-efficacy, self-worth, and anxiety each affects motivation

Posted: July 9, 2013 in Home, Personal Selections and Commentaries, Reflections, Insights, and Realizations


Motivation is the reason why people think and behave as they do. In an achievement setting, someone would be concerned with motivation if he were to ask, for example, why some students persist to task completion despite enormous difficulty, while others give up at the slightest provocation; or why some students set such unrealistically high goals for themselves that failure is bound to occur. Motivation is what pushes or pulls an individual to start, direct, sustain, and finally end an activity.

BaseballSelf-efficacy affects some of the factors that predict motivation. Self-efficacy in Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory or Social Learning Theory pertains to a person’s belief that one is capable of performing a particular task successfully.  Therefore relates to a person’s ability to have optimistic beliefs, but it’s more than just optimism, perceived self-efficacy explicitly refers to the belief in our ability to deal with challenging encounters.

Self-efficacy has three dimensions:  magnitude, the level of task difficulty a person believes to attain; strength, the conviction regarding magnitude as strong or weak; and generality, the degree to which the expectation is generalized across situations. Self efficacy provides the foundation for human motivation, well being and personal accomplishments. An individual’s sense of capability influences his perception, motivation, and performance.  Thus it’s one’s belief that they have the capacity to organize and execute the necessary course of action to manage situations as they occur. The more we believe we can do, the more we invest and thus the greater likelihood we will accomplish our goals.

self efficacy

There are four sources of self-efficacy in Bandura’s work. Teachers can use strategies to build self-efficacy in various ways.

  • Mastery experiences – Students’ successful experiences boost self-efficacy, while failures erode it. This is the most robust source of self-efficacy.
  • Vicarious experience – Observing a peer succeed at a task can strengthen beliefs in one’s own abilities.
  • Verbal persuasion – Teachers can boost self-efficacy with credible communication and feedback to guide the student through the task or motivate them to make their best effort.
  • Emotional state -A positive mood can boost one’s beliefs in self-efficacy, while anxiety can undermine it.



According to self-worth theory, as proposed by Martin Covington (Covington, 1984), humans naturally strive to maintain a sense of self-worth, or an appraisal of one’s own value as a person. Humans are motivated to protect their self-worth by maintaining a belief that they are competent (Covington, 1984).

In our society there is a pervasive tendency to equate accomplishment with human value—put simply, individuals are thought to be only as worthy as their achievements.  Learners with a high degree of positive self-worth are more willing to take risks when learning, because “these formulations were guided by the principles of attribution theory, which assume that people’s perceptions of the causes of their successes and failures influence the quality of their future achievement” (Covington, 1984). They are willing to take these risks because they believe that they are likely to succeed, they have something to gain, or the consequences of a failure won’t impact their own self perception or reputation. There is more to gain than to lose.

From Covington’s explanation of the interplay between human value and accomplishment we gain the perspective that two factors, achievement and ability, dominate as the ultimate value in the minds of learners. The self-worth model emphasizes feelings of worthlessness that arise from “the disclosure of incompetency” (Covington, 1984).  The four main elements of this model are (a) ability, (b) effort, (c) performance, and (d) self worth, arranged in a causal structure as shown in Covington (1984). In this model ability represents one’s self-perception of ability. His model is a directed graph in which ability, performance and effort are linked to self-worth and ability and effort are also linked to performance. The theory also made the distinction between “approaching success” and “avoiding failure” as central to understanding students’ motivation.




Many people only think of anxiety in a negative sense. It is an emotion that makes us feel uncomfortable and tense, and it is a state we want to relieve as soon as possible. Anxiety involves a feeling of fear or a perception of threat and which may be specific to a particular situation.  We do need anxiety – but just enough to stay safe, motivated, and do our best. A little anxiety is a good thing. Too much is overwhelming.  Like you may experience anxiety as an intense worry before a final exam, the nervousness felt before making a presentation or the heightened alertness when you believe you are in danger. Anxiety is our body’s way of alerting us that some kind of action is needed in the face of a situation that is perceived to be threatening or dangerous. Therefore, anxiety can be useful or adaptive whenever it prompts you to take appropriate action in response to an anxiety-provoking situation.

For example, anxiety can motivate us to study for an exam or organize a presentation or leave a situation that feels unsafe. However, anxiety can also be detrimental, especially if it becomes overwhelming and prevents us from taking appropriate actions or prompts you to take actions that are counterproductive.

The notion that moderate anxiety can be beneficial goes back at least to 1908, when Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson posited that arousal (as they called it) enhances performance—but only to a point. When anxiety gets too high, performance suffers instead. Below is an illustration that depicts this.

yerkes curve


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist,  37, 122-147

Bandura, A. (2004). Cultivate self-efficacy for personal and organizational effectiveness. In E. A. Locke (Ed.), Handbook of principles of organizational behavior (pp. 120-136). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Covington, M. (1984). The self-worth theory of achievement motivation: Findings and  implications. The Elementary School Journal, 85(1), 5-20.


How does one’s belief about the nature of intelligence affect motivational approaches to learning? 

Contrary to long-held views, intelligence is not a fixed trait, strictly the result of one’s genetic makeup. After decades of debate, researchers now largely agree that individuals may differ in their biological aptitude for learning certain kinds of things, such as music or social skills, but functional intelligence is for the most part malleable and learnable, and therefore teachable. In other words, a student’s intelligence—and achievement—can change. The most important factor, according to research, is a person’s level of effort. And it is the individual’s level of motivation that determines the intensity of the effort.

Motivation is also malleable as many studies demonstrate. In an interesting twist, it turns out that people’s beliefs about the nature of intelligence can significantly affect their motivation.  For example, those who believe that people are born either smart or not are more likely to give up when facing academic difficulty: they tend to think they just lack the intelligence to solve the problem. But students who believe that effort alone can make a positive difference are more likely to persist and succeed.

Regardless of past achievement, if students believe (or are taught to believe) that they can acquire new skills and improve existing skills through focus and exertion, their motivation to try will grow. Therefore, it is essential to help students learn to associate their achievement with their effort, which they can control, rather than with an innate ability they simply may or may not possess. 


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