Monday, October 10, 2011

Efficacy expectations

I just sent an email to class titled, "Taping Lecture on Lecture." The nonsense of the statement reminded me of one of the most aggravating aspects of social science research: the lack of standardized language.

The last week in HBHE 600 was devoted to social cognitive theory, a model of learning that focuses on the role of self efficacy and outcome expectations and their dynamic interactions with environmental factors to shape behaviors. I remember being introduced to this theory in 2004, and struggling. More than most of the other theories we covered, SCT was one that I read about... and read more about... and kept reading because it has many moving parts and some of them just didn't sink in for. Part of the struggle was just the usual investment you have to make if you want to master anything. A lot of my person confusion, however, stemmed from imprecise language.

Some terms can mean too things

More specifically, the term "efficacy expectations" was used in class to refer to one's self efficacy to be able to perform a specific behavior in a specific situation. Simple, eh? Except a minority of academics used the term to refer to outcome expectations, as in "efficacy expectations were that medications would not lower blood pressure." Enough people, in fact, that I tried to convince myself that efficacy expectations were distinct from both self efficacy and outcome expectations. I think my confusion was forgivable: a lot of health behavior theories (e.g., Protection Motivation Theory, the Extended Parallel Process Model) include perceived response efficacy as key constructs, and it's a small step to morph that into the term, "efficacy expectation."

I raise this issue for two reasons. The first is simply to tell those of you who have tripped over the same confusion about lingo that I sympathize. I've seen other students with the exact same misunderstandings that I had, and I hope this posting helps to reduce that confusion.

The second issue is larger comment about social science more generally: I often wonder how the science advances without standardized language. My undergraduate education was as a biochemist, and you could generally make sense of any article you read, whether it be by someone in Canton, China or Canton, Ohio, because the metrics were standardized. In the social sciences, what does someone really mean when they say, "efficacy expectations?" Or "fear?" Or "perceived risk?" We have a gist-level understanding of what these terms represent, but the operationalization of them from situation to situation is often wildly different.

On the plus side, it's this lack of precision that makes social science interesting and challenging. The experienced practitioner knows enough not to get hung up on the minor differences between "fear" and "worry" when crafting an intervention, but is savvy enough to operationalize and label them appropriately during assessment and publication.