Subjective legal empowerment and self efficacy

Why do some people feel able to act to deal with legal problems when others don’t? What makes some people feel empowered when others lack confidence?

Martin Gramatikov and Robert Porter of Tilburg University in the Netherlands have created the concept of Subjective Legal Empowerment (SLE) in order to measure legal empowerment. Their challenge is to measure it, and through measuring it, to evaluate improvements.

SLE utilizes the psychological theory of self-efficacy in the context of legal problems. Their focus is on members of the public or ‘end users’, clients of organisations, and they have developed a measurement methodology to establish how people view their ability to solve legal problems, that is to say their legal empowerment.

Self-efficacy theory is a theory developed from the late 1960s through the ‘70s and ‘80s by Albert Bandura. He postulated that perceived ability to achieve an objective would significantly affect not only the likelihood of making an attempt, but also the level of commitment to the attempt, and even the strategies employed to achieve the objective. He first demonstrated the accuracy of self-efficacy beliefs in predicting behaviour with snake phobic individuals. Indeed, these experiments demonstrated that self-efficacy ratings were a more accurate predictor of future behaviour than past behaviour.

Such findings underwent robust examination and replication in a variety of settings throughout the 80s and 90s especially. Through this process, Bandura’s four primary sources of self-efficacy information were supported – enactive mastery, vicarious experience, affective state/emotional arousal, and verbal persuasion. The influence of self-efficacy on behaviour in a wide range of settings was demonstrated, including academic performance, overcoming phobias, computer use, workplace productivity, and, importantly to the development of SLE, dispute resolution.

Enactive mastery is a term meaning experience of carrying out the task in question. This is the most powerful source of information in relation to self-efficacy, in that it has the greatest impact on self-efficacy levels. If an individual has prior experience of successfully completing the task in a variety of different contexts, then s/he is likely to have a high level of self-efficacy for that task. Equally, if they have experience of repeatedly failing at the task, then they are likely to have low self-efficacy.

Vicarious experience is the second most effective source of information for creating concepts of self-efficacy. This means from watching or hearing about other individuals who have attempted to complete the task in question. The efficacy of vicarious experience is modified primarily by two variables, the first being the level of identification between the individual forming a self-efficacy opinion (the observer), and the individual they observe (the actor), and the second being the similarity between the task attempted by the actor and the task the observer is faced with.

Affective state is the third category of information used to inform self-efficacy beliefs. This refers to the emotional state induced by attempts to complete the task at hand and/or similar tasks in the past. The effect of affective state on any given individual is difficult to assess. This is due to the interpretive element that is ingrained in the method by which it affects individuals, and the effect of past experience in a much wider range of situations than the particular task presented.

Verbal persuasion is the fourth source of information for the creation of self-efficacy ratings. This refers to information given to an actor concerning their ability to complete the task. This is a common way of trying to alter an individual’s self-efficacy (most often in the form of encouragement or motivation, easily seen in gyms worldwide, with the frequency of phrases such as ‘You can do it’, ‘I’m sure you’ll make it’ etc., but can also be dissuasive statements such as ‘There’s no way you could do that’) but is seen as the least effective method of altering self-efficacy ratings. This is due to the temporary nature of the effect that verbal persuasion typically has. Verbal persuasion may be effective in the short term (when such persuasion is typically exercised), but is easily overcome by information gathered from any of the other three sources.

SLE utilizes a standardized method of measuring self-efficacy, and applies it in the field of legal problems. It looks at both high-order ‘domain’ empowerment (in relation to particular domains of legal problem, e.g. family problems, employment problems…) as well as more specific task-based empowerment measures. This enables SLE to highlight not only overall levels of legal empowerment, but to highlight the tasks in relation to legal problems that are limiting empowerment. This means that SLE can highlight points on which actions can be focused to the greatest effect.

Through this, SLE can help answer a variety of questions, from why different people in very similar legal situations act differently, to what the strongest individual predictors of future behaviour might be, and how people can be best stimulated to use the remedies at their disposal when they have a legal problem.

Robert Porter has been conducting a PhD to further develop the measurement and theory of SLE with the Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law and Tilburg University.

Data has already been collected in four countries – UK, Netherlands, Kenya and Azerbaijan – with promising results, and further work is already on-going. It is hoped that the measure of SLE developed can provide a way to accurately assess legal empowerment in individuals, monitor project impact, and guide interventions to ensure that they address the causes of dis-empowerment.

If you would like to know more, please contact Robert Porter (

Read about self efficacy theory in this open-access paper and on Wikipedia.

Published: 24 January 2017

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