SCARF – A Model for Explaining Social Interactions

by | Jun 5, 2018


It’s a Jungle Out There!

Much of human social behavior is driven by two things: (1) minimizing threats and (2) maximizing rewards. The SCARF model discussed below is a fascinating framework for understanding these two themes in terms of five ares of human social experience. I really began looking at our organization structure and many aspects of our company differently after learning of the SCARF model.

A central organizing principle of the brain is desire to minimize threats and maximize rewards. We tend to engage in these actions by “approaching” rewards and “avoiding” threats. When we perceive a threat “resources available for overall executive function in the prefrontal cortex decrease.” We focus on threat response and our thinking becomes less creative, we tend to generalize more and become less likely to take risks. Our fight or flight responses are triggered  in response to perceived threat and our bodies can produce physiological changes such as rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, pupil dilation and the like.  Related IFOD on The Relaxing Breath

On the other hand, when we perceive reward our approach response leads to greater engagement. “Engagement is a state of being willing to do difficult things, to take risks, to think deeply about issues and develop new solutions.” The approach response is also associated with positive emotions such as happiness, joy and desire.

If you stop and think about your workplace – which would be a more fun, productive place to work? One dominated by the avoid response or the approach response? The answer is obvious – a workplace with more approach/reward is going to be a lot better place to work and is likely to be a higher performing company.

Now to the SCARF model. It proposes that there are five domains of human social experience that trigger the approach or avoid response and in our daily lives we will tend to approach perceived rewards or avoid perceived threats in these areas. The five SCARF domains are:

Status – This is about our perceived relative importance and seniority as compared to others. Our sense of status is increased when we feel superior to or better than another person. A real or perceived threat to our status can produce a strong threat response. Unfortunately, it is easy inadvertently threaten someone’s sense of status.

Certainty – As humans we all crave certainty because we like to be able to predict. “Without prediction, the brain must use dramatically more resources, involving the more energy-intense prefrontal cortex, to process moment-to-moment experience.” Because we crave certainty, we tend to prefer patterns and our brains generate dopamine in response to expectations being met. Thus, at work and other aspects of our lives, we approach certainty and avoid uncertainty.

Autonomy – is “the perception of exerting control over one’s environment; a sensation of having choices.” This is an aspect of our individuality and we desire to feel in control. As such, threats to our autonomy at work can be met with strong negative reactions. Providing multiple choices for people is preferable to telling them what to do based on  this aspect of the SCARF model. This is true of raising children as well.

Relatedness – this involves deciding whether others are “in” or “out” of a social group or maybe whether someone is for you or against you. It involves a sense of belonging. It is important for people to have friends at work and feel like they fit in as part of a team. Similarly, we tend to treat people we don’t consider in our group differently and are less likely to work well as a team.

Fairness – This is a biggie as a threat to fairness can be triggered easily and unintentionally.  Threats to perceived unfairness are reduced by increasing transparency in an organization. Additionally, increasing communication is also key.

All quotes in this IFOD are from the SCARF paper. Here’s a link: SCARF Paper


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