Threat and Reward: The SCARF Model

We’re wired to minimize threat and maximize reward — it’s part of being human. While we encounter threats on a daily basis, some are more perceived than “real.” In general, you might call threat a subjective experience. Regardless of whether it’s “real” or not, the brain responds with the same amount of enthusiasm. 

Do you ever feel like your reaction to certain situations is less of a conscious decision and more of an instinctual one? Go ahead and blame it on your brain. Amygdala hijack, which is quite common, is a response in our brain that’s meant to help us survive a perceived threat. Essentially, it allows us to respond to stimuli without conscious forethought. The problem is that when the amygdala hijack becomes overactive — a little trigger happy, so to speak — we start to respond too easily and too forcefully.

The amygdala functions like an alarm system, alerting us of any threats in our environment. The key here is that your brain is working off of perception. In other words, what one person feels is a threat may not be threatening to someone else. Each of us has a range of what feels threatening from day to day or hour to hour. For example, what might sound like a joke or a slight to one person could easily sound like a threat to someone else, usually a minority. This is commonly referred to as microaggression. 

Another example might be that guy who cuts you off in traffic. If you’re relaxed, well-rested, and feeling your best, that person might get a wave, or at worst, an eye roll. If you’re sleep-deprived, late, and worried about a sick friend, you might respond a bit more aggressively. 

What Creates a Threat Response 

Everyone has a different formula that dictates their response to threat. It’s determined by a combination of factors like personality, experience, values, and goals. One model that some people find useful is the SCARF model, a theory developed by Director of the Neuroleadership Institute, David Rock. While it’s not the only way to think about the amygdala threat response, it does create an easy pneumonic to help people understand several key domains that influence our emotional and behavioral reactions to a threat. 

Status – our relative importance to others
Certainty – our ability to predict the future
Autonomy – our sense of control over events
Relatedness – how safe we feel with others
Fairness – how fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be

How to Gain More Control Over Your Response

Armed with knowledge about what creates threat, we can do a few things to help ourselves in the moments following an amygdala hijack.

Here are five tips to control your threat response:  

  1. Run through deep breathing exercises
  2. Take a time out
  3. Build your emotional intelligence (EQ) skills
  4. Practice daily meditation and mindfulness 
  5. Perform cognitive reappraisal

How to Spot and React to Someone Else’s Threat Response

When you see others who respond quickly and in a way that feels disproportionate to the situation, know that they could feel threatened. If you can give your colleagues and teammates time and space in these moments, you can help them recover and get back into the game. 

Here are a few other things to try: 

How to Maximize Reward

What we perceive as a threat causes our brain to release cortisol – a “stress” hormone. On the other hand, what we perceive as a reward causes our brain to release dopamine – a “reward” hormone. As a leader, you have the unique privilege of being able to maximize reward vs. ignite threat. Fortunately, there are several ways to do this that coincide with the letters of SCARF (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness). 

The reality is that we’re never going to get rid of every threat (real or perceived), but if we can build our toolbox for managing our own threat and help others do the same, everyone wins! The truth is, we all need social interaction. It’s a primal imperative. The world (and our work) demands we interact. So, why not do it well?