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Behavioral Management and the SCARF Model

The SCARF model is a well researched paradigm within neuroscience to help teachers support their students to be more intrinsically motivated. As teachers increase the students’ feelings of S. C. A. R. and F., they will feel better about themselves all around. SCARF involves five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Status- relative importance to others (belongingness)

Certainty- being able to predict future outcomes (consistency)

Autonomy-sense of control over events (choice)

Relatedness-sense of safety with others (safe emotionally and physically)

Fairness- perception of fair exchanges between people (equal)

These five domains activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry (and associated networks) of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward. The model enables people to more easily remember, recognize, and potentially modify the core social domains that drive human behavior. Labelling and understanding these drivers draws conscious awareness to otherwise non conscious processes, which can help in two ways. Firstly, knowing the drivers that can cause a threat response enables people to design interactions to minimize threats. For example, knowing that a lack of autonomy activates a genuine threat response, a leader or educator may consciously avoid micromanaging their employees or students. Secondly, knowing about the drivers that can activate a reward response enables people to motivate others more effectively by tapping into internal rewards, thereby reducing the reliance on external rewards such as money. For example, a line manager might grant more autonomy as a reward for good performance.

The foundations of the SCARF approach lie in basic survivalist instincts we all possess.

“According to Integrative Neuroscientist Evian Gordon, the ‘minimize danger and maximize reward principle is an overarching, organizing principle of the brain (Gordon, 2000). This central organizing principle of the brain is analogous to a concept that has appeared in the literature for a long time: the approach-avoid response”.

This principle represents the likelihood that when a person encounters a stimulus, their brain will either tag the stimulus as ‘good’ and engage in the stimulus (approach), or their brain will tag the stimulus as ‘bad’ and they will disengage from the stimulus (avoid).”(SCARF pg.3)

The table below shows how the five domains of social experience can be used to perpetuate avoidance and/or approach to a task or concept. These factors quite often come in to play during the school day .

ResponseSynonyms in literatureWhich traditional primary factors activate the responseWhat social factors/situations activate the response
ApproachAdvance, attack, reward, resource, expand, solution, strength, construct, engage.Rewards in form of money, food, water, sex, shelter, physical assets for survival.Happy, attractive faces. Rewards in the form of increasing status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, fairness
AvoidWithdraw, retreat, danger, threat, contract, problem, weakness, deconstruct.Punishment in the form of removal of money or other resources or threats like a large hungry predator or a gun.Fearful, unattractive, unfamiliar faces. Threats in the form of decreasing status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, fairness.

(SCARF pg.3)

Looking at the chart through an educators eyes, we can pick out specific interaction types or scenarios that would either encourage students to approach or avoid new learning. In addition, this new found motivation would be created without bribing or shaming students. Consider a middle school student who feels threatened by a teacher who is undermining their credibility when they ask a question in class. This simple interaction could create avoidance from the students for the entire semester or even their whole life in that subject. (Have you ever heard adults say “I hate math. I had a terrible math teacher.”!?) Instead what if the teacher engaged the student in a fair debate with respect and modeled that all questions would be met with acceptance and a chance for connection. In that moment, the student is rewarded with certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness according to research this social experience can promote buy-in and approach towards the information.

The above story is based on the document, “SCARF: a Brain-based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others” by David Rock.


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