Watch Tim Tebow to see 'self-efficacy' in action

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow prayed before a game earlier this month. Tebow's faith in God and himself has played a role in his success on the field.
Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow prayed before a game earlier this month. Tebow's faith in God and himself has played a role in his success on the field. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Let's assume God did not take time out of his busy Sunday to steer a Denver Broncos field goal attempt through the uprights and ensure quarterback Tim Tebow yet another miracle come-from-behind victory.

God gets lots of prayers on Sunday. Surely those tens of thousands of Russians marching for democracy in Moscow had a higher priority.

So let's say God didn't get around to Tebow's prayer.

Doesn't matter.

What matters is Tebow thought God did.

Among students of the mind, it's called self-efficacy, an academic version of "fake it till you make it." Tebow thinks, therefore he scores.

Cancer survivor Susan Schaeffer, a retired circuit judge in St. Petersburg, Fla., watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Broncos beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday. She knew the Bucs would lose when they fell behind. "Oh dear," she said, "you could see an instant change. You could see the non-effort."

She also knew Tebow and his Broncos would win.

In 1994, Schaeffer imagined beating her diagnosis of usually terminal small-cell lung cancer. She says she is alive today because of being confident that she could win.

A number of medical studies have shown that, statistically, positive thinking has no effect on the outcome of diseases like cancer.

Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, has written extensively on the relationship between medicine and positive thinking — including the amazing recovery of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from her gunshot wound to the head.

"Representative Giffords' husband describes her as a 'fighter,' " Sloan wrote this year in a New York Times op-ed column, "and no doubt she is one. Whether her recovery has anything to do with a fighting spirit, however, is another matter entirely."

He said there's no evidence that an upbeat attitude can make someone recover from illness.

Schaeffer doesn't think that positive thinking destroyed her cancer cells. But she thinks an absence of negative thinking propelled her through therapy.

"The message is you can't guarantee success with positive thinking," she said, "but you can guarantee failure with negative thinking."

Schaeffer saw that happen on Sunday.

Dr. Paul Spector, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of South Florida, didn't watch Sunday's games.

But he says Schaeffer and Tebow are beneficiaries of self-efficacy.

In everyday ways, anyone can benefit. Let's say Driver A cuts off Driver B on the highway. Driver B is about to plow into a semi. But he doesn't panic. He slows down and steers around the semi. Driver B shows self-efficacy.

Spector said self-efficacy comes from experience.

"Even though you're under pressure, you still have confidence," Spector says.

Athletes like Tebow combine confidence with talent. Whether Tebow thinks his skills come from God or from years of practice doesn't matter. "He has faith in himself," Spector says.

Even though Tebow's play earlier in the game was subpar, the faith persisted. Self-efficacy gave him a cool head.

Studies also show that it's infectious, that it inspires groups of people.

It causes "an upward spiral," Spector says.

Things just get better and better.