SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others

I remember hearing/reading about SCARF a few years back, but a recent conversation with a colleague made it top of mind for me again, so I decided to give it a deeper look.

In a nutshell, SCARF is a framework for understanding human social behavior through a neuroscience lens. It has broad applicability, prior to an interaction (predicting how people would react to certain conversation), during an interaction (helping to regulate responses to more tactical reactions) and after an interaction (explaining the root causes behind the outcome).

At its core, SCARF argues that human social behavior is dictated primarily by the human survival instinct, also known as approach-avoid, reward-threat, or fight-flight. SCARF then posits that human behavior can be analyzed and evaluated through the threats/rewards that a certain action triggers in each one of 5 domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness.

Below is a very crude summary, meant to give you a tase of framework and how it can be applied:

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It’s worth noting that some situations / actions force an unavoidable threat in one domain. But thoughtful design can often times help mitigate its impact by offering rewards in other domains.

A later paper, published 4 years after the original one, covers more recent developments in the study of each domain and the framework in general. Perhaps the most interesting findings have to do with the individual variation in SCARF profiles (different people may be more/less sensitive to threat/reward in a certain domain) and the interconnections between SCARF domains, namely: status and relatedness, and certainty and relatedness.

The authors identify several areas where SCARF can be applied: managing oneself, educating and training, coaching, leadership development and organizational systems. After spending a week looking at coaching and organizational systems tasks through a SCARF lens, I’m positively surprised by its ability to guide towards better outcomes. It’s a tool that I plan to keep at the top of my toolbox more than I did in the past.

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I enjoy solving human puzzles

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