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
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