Behaviour Research and Therapy 42 (2004) 1129–1148
Social cognitive theory of posttraumatic recovery: the role
of perceived self-efficacy
Charles C. Benighta, Albert Bandurab,?
aUniversity of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, CO 8093-7150, USA
bDepartment of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2130, USA
Received 18 April 2003; received in revised form 28 July 2003; accepted 8 August 2003
The present article integrates findings from diverse studies on the generalized role of perceived coping
self-efficacy in recovery from different types of traumatic experiences. They include natural disasters,
technological catastrophes, terrorist attacks, military combat, and sexual and criminal assaults. The vari-
ous studies apply multiple controls for diverse sets of potential contributors to posttraumatic recovery. In
these different multivariate analyses, perceived coping self-efficacy emerges as a focal mediator of post-
traumatic recovery. Verification of its independent contribution to posttraumatic recovery across a wide
range of traumas lends support to the centrality of the enabling and protective function of belief in one’s
capability to exercise some measure of control over traumatic adversity.
# 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Diathesis-stress model; Proactive agentic model; Guided mastery; Perceived self-efficacy; Posttraumatic
recovery; Social cognitive theory; Stress
Millions of people undergo traumatic experiences annually. These traumas take diverse
forms, including criminal assaults, terrifying accidents, large-scale terrorist carnage, technologi-
cal disasters, military combat, and mass destruction by natural disasters wrought by hurricanes,
raging fire storms, flash floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Acute distress is a norma-
tive response to trauma. However, a small percent of the people who have undergone traumatic
?Corresponding author. Fax: +1-650-725-5699.
E-mail address: email@example.com (A. Bandura).
0005-7967/$ - see front matter # 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
experiences continue to exhibit severe stress reactions long after the trauma. The posttraumatic
reactions are widely generalized across different modes and spheres of functioning. They include
re-experiencing of the traumatic event in flashbacks, recurrent nightmares and intrusive memor-
ies, hypervigilant arousal, impaired concentration, depression, sleep disturbances, self-devalu-
ation, avoidance of reminders of traumatic experiences, emotional detachment from others, and
disengagement from aspects of life that provide meaning and self-fulfillment. In functional
assessments these recurrent reactions seriously impair intrapersonal, interpersonal, and occu-
pational functioning (Van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Wersaeth, 1996).
This article integrates findings from diverse studies of traumatization on the role of perceived
coping self-efficacy in recovery from traumatic experiences within the framework of social cog-
nitive theory. In the present context, this self-belief refers to the perceived capability to mange
one’s personal functioning and the myriad environmental demands of the aftermath occasioned
by a traumatic event. For purposes of convenience, this belief system will be referred to with the
shortened label, ‘‘self-efficacy’’. It focuses on the chronic and disabling form of stress of trau-
matic origin rather than common adverse life events. The key features of traumatic stressors
include perilousness, unpredictability, and uncontrollability. Unpreventability of the traumatic
event is also a feature of many natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
In the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria for PTSD, an individual must have ‘‘experienced, wit-
nessed, or been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or
serious injury, or a threat of the physical integrity of self or others’’ (p. 467). In addition, the
individual must experience a sense of intense fear, helplessness, or horror in response to the
traumatic stressor. Diverse lines of research have been conducted to clarify the determinants
and processes of posttraumatic stress. These include epidemiological studies of prevalence rates
and the temporal course of the disorder (Breslau et al., 1998; Creamer, Burgess, & McFarlane,
2001; Helzer, Robins, & McEvoy, 1987). Other studies have sought to identify vulnerability fac-
tors that predispose individuals to develop chronic difficulties following traumatic stress (Paris,
2000; Silva et al., 2000). Other programs of research analyze the psychological processes, such
as fear conditioning and dissociation, that may affect the severity and chronicity of the disorder
(Foa, 1997; Spiegel, 1993). Another line of research examines information processing activities
as reflected in perceptual, attentional, and memory biases (Buckley, Blanchard, & Neill, 2000;
Coles & Heimberg, 2002; Witvliet, 1997). And still other studies have investigated the neuro-
biological changes produced by exposure to traumatic events (Pitman, Shin, & Rauch, 2001;
Heim et al., 2000; Newport & Nemeroff, 2000; Yehuda, 2001).
The theories and some of the empirical findings of these different lines of research have been
extensively analyzed elsewhere and will not be re-examined here, except as they bear on parti-
cular issues addressed in the present article. It focuses on the role of perceived coping self-effi-
cacy in posttraumatic recovery and its independent contribution within constellations of other
potential determinants. Before addressing the issue of posttraumatic recover, the following sec-
tion provides the theoretical framework for the self-efficacy mechanism, delineates the different
processes through which a low sense of coping efficacy contributes to persisting stress reactions,
and contrasts the proactive agentic model with the diathesis-stress model.
C.C. Benight, A. Bandura / Behaviour Research and Therapy 42 (2004) 1129–11481130
2. Self-efficacy foundation of human agency
Among the mechanisms of human agency, none is more central or pervasive than people’s
beliefs in their efficacy to manage their own functioning and to exercise control over events that
affect their lives (Bandura, 1997, 2001a). A sense of personal efficacy is the foundation of
human agency. Whatever other factors serve as guides and motivators, they are rooted in the
core belief that one has the power to produce desired effects by one’s actions, otherwise one has
little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties.
Self-efficacy beliefs regulate human functioning through cognitive, motivational, affective, and
decisional processes. They affect whether individuals think in self-enhancing or self-debilitating
ways; how well they motivate themselves and persevere in the face of difficulties; the quality of
their emotional life and vulnerability to stress and depression; resiliency to adversity; and the
choices they make at important decisional points which set life courses. Through these diverse
means, belief in one’s capability to exercise some measure of control in the face of taxing stres-
sors promotes resilience to them.
Numerous meta-analyses of self-efficacy effect sizes have been conducted on findings from
studies with different experimental designs and analytic methodologies applied across varied
modes of self-efficacy enhancement and spheres of functioning (Gully, Incalcaterra, Josi, &
Beaubein, 2002; Boyer et al., 2000; Holden, 1991; Holden, Moncher, Schinke, & Barker, 1990;
Moritz, Feltz, Fahrbach, & Mack, 2000; Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991; Sadri & Robertson,
1993; Stajkovic & Lee, 2001; Stajkovic & Luthans, 1998). The converging evidence from these
variant lines of research verify the predictive generality of efficacy beliefs as significant con-
tributions to the quality of human functioning.
3. Perceived coping self-efficacy in stress reactions
Self-efficacy plays a key role in stress reactions and quality of coping in threatening situations
(Bandura, 1997). This section provides a conceptual analysis of the different processes through
which efficacy beliefs affect the intensity and persistence of stress reactions. We then turn to a
review of the series of empirical tests of the pivotal mediational role of self-efficacy in post-
traumatic stress disorder arising from diverse types of traumatic experiences. There are four
major ways in which self-efficacy exerts its effects on socioemotional functioning. These efficacy-
governed processes are briefly reviewed in the sections that follow.
4. Attentional and construal processes
Threat is not solely an inherent property of situational events. Nor does appraisal of the like-
lihood of injurious happenings rely entirely on reading the nature of external signs of danger or
safety. Rather, threat is a relational property concerning the match between perceived coping
capabilities and potentially detrimental aspects of the environment. The same potential threats
are frightful to people beset with doubts they can control them, but relatively benign to those
who feel assured they can override them. Self-appraisal of coping capabilities, therefore, deter-
mines, in large part, the subjective perilousness of environments (Bandura, 1997).
1131 C.C. Benight, A. Bandura / Behaviour Research and Therapy 42 (2004) 1129–1148
People’s beliefs in their coping efficacy influence vigilance toward potential threats and how
they are perceived and cognitively processed. People who believe they can exercise control over
threats do not conjure up calamities and distress themselves. But those who believe that poten-
tial threats are unmanageable view many aspects of their environment as fraught with danger.
They dwell on their coping deficiencies, magnify the severity of possible threats, and worry
about perils that rarely if ever happen. Through such inefficacious trains of thought, they dis-
tress themselves and constrain and impair their level of functioning (Bandura, 1997; Jerusalem
& Mittag, 1995; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
In studies in which perceived control is varied experimentally, people who are led to believe
they can exercise some control over aversive events display lower physiological arousal and less
performance impairment than do those who believe they lack personal control, even though
both groups are subjected equally to the aversive events (Geer, Davison, & Gatchel, 1970;
Glass, Singer, Leonard, Krantz, & Cummings, 1973; Litt, Nye, & Shafer, 1993; Sanderson,
Rapee, & Barlow, 1989).
5. Transformative actions
Perceived self-efficacy to manage intense stressors affects not only how threats are construed
but how well people cope with them. As previously noted, people are producers of life circum-
stances not just construers and reactors to them. Those who have a high sense of coping efficacy
adopt strategies and courses of action designed to change hazardous environments into more
benign ones. In this mode of affect regulation, efficacy beliefs alleviate stress and anxiety by
enabling individuals to mobilize and sustain coping efforts. The stronger the sense of efficacy,
the bolder people are in taking on the problematic situations that breed stress and the greater
their success in shaping them more to their liking (Bandura, Blanchard, & Ritter, 1969; Ban-
dura, Taylor, Williams, Mefford, & Barchas, 1985; and Williams, 1990). Masterly action trans-
forms the threateningness of the environment.
That self-efficacy operates as a cognitive regulator of stress and anxiety arousal is revealed in
microlevel relations between different levels of instilled efficacy beliefs and corresponding subjec-
tive and biological stress reactions while coping with phobic threats varying in levels of intimi-
dation (Bandura, Blanchard, & Ritter, 1969; Bandura et al., 1985; Bandura, Reese, & Adams,
1982). People remain unperturbed while coping with potential threats they regard with high per-
sonal efficacy. But as they confront threats for which they distrust their coping efficacy their
subjective distress and autonomic and catecholamine reactivity mounts. After their perceived
coping efficacy is raised to the highest level by guided mastery experiences, they manage the dif-
ferent levels of phobic stressors with uniformly low physiological activation.
6. Thought control efficacy
People live in a psychic environment largely of their own making. To the extent that they can
exercise control over what they think, they can regulate how they feel and behave. Many human
distresses are exacerbated, if not created, by failures of thought control. They cannot rid their
C.C. Benight, A. Bandura / Behaviour Research and Therapy 42 (2004) 1129–11481132
mind of perturbing intrusions and remain haunted by posttraumatic events. The self-regulation
of thought processes plays a critical role in the maintenance of emotional well-being following
the traumatic experience. It is not the sheer frequency of aversive cognitions per se that
accounts for anxiety arousal, but rather the sense of powerlessness to rid one’s mind of them
(Churchill & McMurray, 1989; Kent, 1987; Kent & Gibbons, 1987; Salkovskis & Harrison,
In sum, a robust sense of coping efficacy is accompanied by benign appraisals of potential
threats, weaker stress reactions to them, less ruminative preoccupation with them, better behav-
ioral management of threats, and faster recovery of well-being from any experienced distress
over them. These enabling and protective efficacy-governed processes help to weaken the endur-
ing distressfulness and debilitativeness of traumatizing events. The preceding sections provide
the theoretical framework for analyzing the role of perceived self-efficacy in posttraumatic
recovery. The sections that follow analyze the role of self-efficacy as one of the mechanisms gov-
erning the recovery process across different forms of traumatizations. A profound sense of inef-
ficacy to manage various life demands and to exert control over tormenting ruminations
becomes a major persisting impediment to successful adaptation. The analysis of multiform
traumas provides a stringent test of the generality of the posited self-efficacy mechanism.
7. Proactive agentic model and diathesis-stress model of posttraumatic recovery
The conditions accompanying traumatic events can easily overwhelm coping capabilities. As
previously noted, most people rebound from traumatic experiences, which testifies to consider-
able human resilience. Others remain chronically debilitated. The variable effects indicate that
traumatic events alone are insufficient to produce enduring stress and debility. Rather, the dis-
order is the product of the interplay of environmental stressors and psychosocial factors. Alter-
native conceptual models have been posited on how these codetermining factors produce
enduring stress reactions. One version includes an amalgam of the diathesis-stress model and
the epidemiological risk-buffer model. The second version is founded on the agentic proactive
causality of social cognitive theory.
The diathesis-stress model has been widely adopted as the guiding metatheory for under-
standing the variable impact of traumatic stressors. In this conceptual framework, external
stressors constitute risk factors that act on personal predispositions to produce psychosocial
effects. Depending on theoretical orientations, the diathesis or predispositions may be primarily
cognitive, constitutional or a blend of these different types of vulnerabilities. The diathesis-stress
model is often combined with epidemiological risk-buffer models. Protective factors are posited
as conditions that can buffer the adverse effects of stressors. This metatheory is heavily cast in
reactive terms with personal vulnerabilities reacting to environmental stressors.
Social cognitive theory adopts an agentic model of adaptation and change rather than a
reactive dispositional one (Bandura, 1997, 2001a). To be an agent is to influence one’s function-
ing and one’s life circumstances. Individuals play a proactive role in their adaptation, rather
than simply undergo experiences in which environmental stressors act on their personal vulner-
abilities. Within this agentic perspective, resilience to adversity relies more on personal enable-
ment than on environmental protectiveness. Protectiveness shields individuals from harsh
1133C.C. Benight, A. Bandura / Behaviour Research and Therapy 42 (2004) 1129–1148