Ability and Capability

[Recently, I received an email asking me to clarify the difference between ability and capability in social cognitive theory. Here is my reply.]

For Bandura, as for Vygotsky, ability, from the Latin "skillfull," is the quality of being able. It refers to competence in doing, skill, and proficiency that has already been acquired. It is what we can do in the present. Self-efficacy for present ability is called "self-efficacy for performance," which is our confidence that we can do a particular task right now.

Capability refers to a feature or faculty capable of development, to potentiality, to the facility or potential for an indicated use or deployment. In other words, capability is "future" oriented. It is what we believe we can do in the future with appropriate instruction. It is what we believe we can learn to do. Self-efficacy for capability is called "self-efficacy for learning," which is our confidence that we could learn to do a particular task. Thus, asked whether she can multiply two digit numbers, a child who at present can only multiply one-digit numbers may say that she cannot do so at present (ability), but that she is sure she could learn to do so if properly instructed (capability).

This is the same distinction that Vygotsky drew between ability (the "actual" level of development) and capability (the "potential" level of development) in the zone of proximal development.

Bandura would agree with Vygotsky that "what children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone" (Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society , p. 85). The Professor has defined self-efficacy in a number of way, but note that he always defines it in terms of capability rather than in terms of ability. For example,

  • From Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (1986): "Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people's judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances" (p. 391).
  • From The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, Vol. 4 (1994): "Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people's beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives" (p. 71)
  • From Self-Efficay in Changing Societies (1995): "Self-efficacy is the belief in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations" (p. 2).
  • Finally, here is how the Professor's defines it in Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (1997): "Perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments" (p. 3).)
Ability and capability are sometimes uses synonymously, but the distinction is an important one.