Why other people's failures will stop you from achieving

by Dorian Minors

November 13, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


We learn in a number of ways, us clever humans do. From the people around us, from the consequences of our actions and from the environment we live in. Through this learning, we develop something of an internal representation of ourselves. Unfortunately…

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We learn in a number of ways, us clever humans do. From the people around us, from the consequences of our actions and from the environment we live in. Through this learning, we develop something of an internal representation of ourselves. Unfortunately this internal representation is often super distorted, because our brain is lazy. In the 1990’s, Albert Bandura noticed that this internal self-image was instrumental in people’s decisions to do (or not do) things. In particular, he noted that a particular kind of cognition (thought) dictated whether or not people would act in many circumstances. It’s called self-efficacy and it’s your belief that you can (or can’t) perform adequately in any given situation. Or put another way, how good you think you are at something.

Example time

Let’s say your car tyre goes flat. Your self-efficacy in this situation would be your belief about your ability to change the tyre; how difficult it would be for you.

But it’s not just about simple tasks. Your self-efficacy is formed for every situation you know of. It’s the reason approach anxiety is a thing. It’s even (arguably) why some people are cold and some people are clingy in relationships (depending on how good they think they are at getting others to love them). Your self-efficacy influences your perceptions, your motivation and even your performance. How good you think you are at things will literally decide whether or not you’re going to do them (you won’t try if you think you’ll fail).

Four things that shape your self-efficacy

  1. The first is your own personal accomplishments (or lack thereof). Obviously, if you do something, you’ll get an idea of how easy it was for you. This is referred to by psychologists as ‘enactive attainment’ (I know right? It’s like they make up words just to justify how much we pay them). In fact, this is the very reason incompetent people don’t realise they’re useless; they haven’t tried enough.
  2. The second is kind of related, in that you monitor your arousal levels (physical, not sexual you deviant) to see what your body thinks of what you’re about to do. So if you’re getting ‘butterflies’ before you do a presentation at work, you might interpret that as a sign that you’re not confident and are thus not ready, or good at presentations.
  3. You can also be persuaded, by yourself but more commonly by others. If other people share their observations of how well you’re doing, that will boost your self efficacy and if they share their opinion of how badly you’ll do it’ll lower it. Unsurprisingly (we are such fragile beings) it’s much easier to lower self-esteem with persuasion than encourage it.
  4. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, we build our self-efficacy out of our observations of other people doing things. It’s called ‘vicarious experience’ and it means that we can learn whether or not we might be good at something or not depending on whether other people like us can (or can’t) do it.

We learn from others, and that’s the problem

Why is the fourth point so important? Well, firstly it means that we can figure out things like what activities we might like and what vocations to engage in without trying literally everything first, which is useful. But it also means that when the experiences of others aren’t representative of our ability, we get a skewed perspective on how we think we’ll go. That means that every time you watch someone on T.V. or read about something in the news you’re getting an extremely skewed perception about who is good at what.

T.V. characters are super not representative of our ability. They’re representative of what gets media moguls paid. And stories in the news wouldn’t be in the news if they weren’t a rare occurrence (although there have been some really slow news days). So while you watch them failing at stuff for comic relief, or succeeding at stuff that doesn’t even make sense, you’re completely messing with your poor self-efficacy.

Fun Fact (to add to the ‘cry myself to sleep’ material)

Girls statistically have done worse than boys at math. But girls aren’t bad at math; this is something that’s conclusively to do with their self-efficacy and not their ability. You know what’s worse? When you take the boys out of the equation, girls suddenly perform as well if not better. Now that could be for a lot of reasons, but girls also do better (and have better self-reported self-efficacy) when teachers emphasise the importance of math and its usefulness. This, combined with the fact that teachers tend to attribute poorer results with lack of ability in girls but lack of knowledge in boys suggests just how significant our self-efficacy beliefs are and how easily they can be influenced. When everything tells you that you’re not good at something, regardless of your ability, you’re going to end up believing it.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow“ - Mary Anne Radmacher

Once your brain forms an opinion, it’ll try its damndest to ignore all evidence to the contrary. Learn how the ‘confirmation bias’ is helping to mess with your self-efficacy. And learn the four scientific reasons why meditation can help here (it eliminates your biases and helps you see things clearly). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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