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The Power of SCARF: Influence Human Behavior with This Model

How do we get the best out of people. This framework is the brainchild of neuroscientist David Rock. He believes that we get the best out of people with positive encouragement rather than criticisms. In 2008 he published his theory and called it SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others. The SCARF name comes from the acronym of its critical components which are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

Status: This is the degree to which we feel respected or important in a social situation. Status feeds the ego and if somebody tells us that the job we are doing is of minor importance or that we are of minor importance then understandably we feel diminished. Equally, when we are praised or told what a good job we have done, we feel important and it is motivating.

Certainty: We need to feel in control of our environment. This is behind Uber’s success. When we book an Uber, it tells us how long it will be before the car gets there. Uber increases the level of certainty of how long we have to wait and so improves the quality of our waiting time. One of the most effective improvements the London tube made was installing screens that provide a digital countdown of the time of the next train. This improvement feeds our need for certainty and it raised people’s satisfaction with the tube service.

Autonomy: We want to feel that our views matter, that we have a say and that we are being listened to. It makes us feel in control. When we feel our autonomy is threatened, we are defensive and resistant. When we feel our autonomy is rewarded, we are more engaged and motivated. Why don’t more bosses ask staff for recommendations and then act upon them?

Relatedness: One of the strongest bonds is to our family. Another is to our mates, especially those we work with. We are related to these people and if they are threatened, we are threatened. When groups of people are rewarded it builds a strong team. It is why celebrating success is so important.

Fairness: What drives us mad is feeling that we are not justly rewarded. Living in a fair society and working for a fair boss will make us more open and cooperative.

Status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, are five things that if we get wrong will threaten people and if we get them right they will reward and encourage people.

When American Express writes to you it confirms how many years you have been a member. To a human being it is a reward to have the length of membership tenure recognised. It indicates that you are important to American Express. The right words in the right place at the right time can be used to great advantage while the converse is highly destructive.

Imagine you are a new employee at a company and you are attending your first team meeting. During the meeting, your manager criticizes a project that you have been working on and points out several mistakes that you made. You will feel embarrassed and defensive.

In this situation, you perceive your status and competence to be threatened. Your brain may activate an "away" response, which is focused on avoiding the perceived threat. You may feel fear, anxiety, or defensiveness, as well as behaviors such as avoidance or resistance. At an extreme level you might not turn up for work the next day. If your response isn't quite so radical, you may nevertheless try to deflect the blame, making excuses, or withdraw from the conversation. You may also become less willing to contribute to future meetings or engage with your colleagues.

On the other hand, when we perceive a reward in a social situation, our brains activate a "toward" response focused on maximizing the perceived reward. Imagine you are a salesperson who has just closed a big deal with a new client. After signing the contract, the client compliments you on your excellent communication skills and says they are looking forward to working with you in the future. You feel a sense of satisfaction and pride, and your mood lifts. Your brain activates a "toward" response, which manifests as feelings of pleasure, excitement, or motivation, as well as behaviors such as engagement, collaboration, or creativity.

Overall, the SCARF model highlights the importance of creating positive social experiences and minimizing social threats in order to promote engagement, motivation, and productivity in individuals and teams.


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