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Threat and Reward: The SCARF Model

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. If we’re to accept the SCARF model, a theory developed by Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, David Rock, we believe our brains cause certain behaviors based on primitive social needs. According to SCARF, there are five social domains that influence our emotional and behavioral reactions:

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.

In this primitive response system, 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 “happy” hormone. That’s right folks! We’re talking neuroscience.

Here are a few examples of perceived threats and rewards in relation to the domains of SCARF.

Status: Harsh criticism is a threat to status, while positive feedback is a reward.
Certainty: Unexpected announcements are a treat to certainty, while a schedule is a reward.
Autonomy: Micromanagement is a threat to autonomy, while trust is a reward.
Relatedness: Isolation is a threat to relatedness, while teamwork is a reward.
Fairness: Uncertainty in your own role is a threat to fairness, while clear team hierarchy is a reward.

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? Try keeping SCARF in mind next time you act and react. If you’re a leader, consider how the things you say and do trigger the brain to respond in certain ways.

Still struggling with daily social interactions? Maybe with one person in particular? Check out our recent blog post on how to deal with a coworker who rubs you the wrong way.