Can confidence actually come from a “Certificate of Participation”?

  • Monday, August 29, 2016
  • Shona Innes Psychology

Wouldn’t it be handy if you could go and get some confidence in a jar?

I don’t think confidence is available in jar form as yet.  I’m also not entirely sure that confidence necessarily comes from a “certificate of participation, either, but I can see where people are coming from when they try this.  I think they just need to think a little more about the concept and perhaps understand the psychological science behind it so that they can modify the “Certificate of Participation” scheme they plan so that it actually assists in building confidence.

When people speak about confidence, I think they generally mean that a person has strength in the belief that they will be able to do something.  In psychology, we call this self-efficacy – the idea that we have capabilities and we have a strong belief in those capabilities.

The concept of self-efficacy has been pivotal in psychology.  In the 1970s, psychology was very behavioural.  We believed that things happened because an individual was rewarded for it and things didn’t happen or happened less often because they were punished.  It was Albert Bandura in the late 1970s who started to write about the idea that success had something to do with reward and failure, but it also had a lot to do with whether we had a strong belief in our capabilities.

If I don’t think I can do something, then I may be disinclined to even start and if I do start and I have low self-efficacy, it won’t take much for me to give up if I hit an obstacle or feel like I’m failing.

According to Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy,  our expectation for our individual self-efficacy or how well we think we can do something comes from four places:

 1.  Performance accomplishments – our own personal experiences from having tried something before. If we have repeated successes, our expectations that we can do the task are high.  If we have failures, especially at the beginning of trying something, then our belief about our ability is lowered.  If mishaps occur early, people can give up.  If mishaps occur after some success, the negative impact of occasional failure is reduced.  So there are patterns of timing and a pattern of experience that are important to the development of self-efficacy.  We need to plan for success early if we are teaching someone something that is difficult – start with baby steps that increase the chance that they will be successful early, then throw in a few more difficult challenges between the successes.  Once we establish self efficacy, it can generalise to other areas.

2.  Vicarious experience – seeing other people try and have success or try and fail can affect our level of self efficacy. Having positive models can help.

3.  Verbal persuasion – telling people to “give it a go” and that “you can do it” might help, but it can also backfire if we are not careful.

We need to do more than tell people what to do – if we want to persuade someone to attempt something we need to also arrange conditions to help them perform, because if we persuade them and they continue to fail the their efficacy and the effects of our persuasion will both drop.

Also, a person’s own self talk or inner dialogue about their abilities can persuade or dissuade them.  If a person tells themselves that “I got this Certificate of Participation because I wasn’t good enough to win”, that conversation is likely to be one that erodes their sense of self-efficacy.  If they tell themselves that the certificate is a genuine representation of effort, it may have a different outcome on their efficacy.

4.  Physiological states – difficult and stressful situations get us emotionally aroused. If people feel really anxious, they are less likely to expect success. Helping people to manage their emotional arousal can help.  Tricking them to manage their emotional arousal can have worsening consequences.  How a person experiences and makes meaning of their anxiety or stress will affect their motivation to try. Giving deceptive feedback is unhelpful because we need reliability and durability across time.

Bandura also explained that efficacy has a profound effect on personal development because it affects the challenges people choose to undertake, how much effort they expend, how long they persevere in the face of obstacles and whether they are motivated or demoralised by failure .  If a person sees themselves as having a strong sense of coping, it reduces their vulnerability to stress in difficult times and strengthens their resilience.


We need to give young people lots of opportunities.  We need to make sure that we model the behaviour we would like to see them do.  We need to verbally encourage but not without setting it up so that they can achieve some success.  We need to understand how it is they are thinking about their own abilities and, if some of those thoughts appear inaccurate or unhelpful, we need to help them to challenge those thoughts.  We also need to help them to manage their anxious arousal with techniques to self calm and soothe.  We also need to celebrate and make sure they take notice of their own successes, too.  We want them to take the right message away from their attempts.

If you can wrap up all of those helpful and motivating aspects of self-efficacy into a “Certificate of Participation”, then go right ahead!  If not, please refrain.


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