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Efficacy: a missing link between sociocultural determinants and future thinking

Keynotes lecture (20 min) at the World Futures Conference 2023 in Paris


The field of futures studies has increasingly been concerned with understanding the cognitive processes involved in future thinking (Øverland, 2013), especially imagination and anticipation (e.g. Adam, Poli, Facer, van Lente). However, with rare exceptions (eg., Appadurai, 2013), little is known about the linkage between individuals’ mental constructions of the future and their situated social arrangements and environments.

The paper argues that efficacy theory (Bandura, 1999) provides one such linkage, one which is increasingly wanting as “the future is reduced to climate” (Hulme, 2011). Not only does the performativity of the future, well-known through self-fulfilling prophecies, influence present efficacy beliefs, but present efficacy beliefs resting upon social determinants also influence assessments of future possibilities. Efficacy’s effects are thus bidirectional.

Using climate and sustainability scenarios as case study, this contribution shows that while climate scenarios can affect people’s sense of self and collective efficacy (Shi et al., 2015), low or high efficacy itself can also enter as a cause of different responses to these scenarios (e.g., mobilisation versus indifference). Efficacy theory illuminates why people can mobilise in the face of pessimistic (climate) scenarios but also why sometimes they can’t when facing desirable (sustainable) futures, nuancing some of the work on positive futures.

Sometimes, it is not the lack of available positive futures, or personal morality, among others, that explain people's apparent lack of commitment, but rather the fact that they perceive themselves as not positioned to do much about the (climate) future individually and/or collectively (perceived low sense of self and collective efficacy).


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