A science-based approach to communication

How does the brain work in social situations? If we have an understanding of what motivates social behavior we can use that to optimize communication and become better leaders. 

If we allow ourselves to generalize the brain is actually quite simple. The way we behave in social situations depend on whether we interpret unexpected events as threats or as rewards. It is “the fundamental organizing principle of the brain” according to neuroscientist Evian Gordon.

After an initial unexpected event the brains starts processing. The response is very fast. After experiencing a threat, it takes a third of a second for the brain to trigger a threat response.

The field of social neuroscience teaches us that the two types of responses, threat or reward, is the same for social situations as they are for primal survival needs. That means that the sense of threat experienced when getting criticized in a meeting is the same as hearing footsteps in a dark alley.

The threat response is more powerful than the reward response.

Rock has formulated a model that captures five common factors that induce this threat or reward response. The five factors are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.


Status is about relative importance to others.

Caring about status seem to have favored our survival. The threat response is triggered when you compare unfavorably to someone else, no matter the stakes. This explains why a status threat can be felt when losing a pointless computer game as well as when receiving feedback at work.

Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.

Most people have experienced how it feels to learn something new. Say for instance driving a car. At first when you are learning, you need to consciously think about how you use your feet, how you change gear and so on. Later on when you have your license these things are done seemingly automatic. Like an unconscious process. According to Rock this is because your brain saves energy by shifting to autopilot. It takes advantage of your prior experience – a perceived sense of certainty around cause and effect.

When something unexpected happens it affects the brains ability to predict what is going to happen.

Change generally means uncertainty…

Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.

Autonomy is about having choices. Or perhaps the perception of having choices. Studies have shown that an experienced lack of control over a stressful event limits our capabilities. An uncontrolled environment means less influence over the outcome.

The threat response is activated when we feel a reduction in autonomy.

Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe.

Relatedness is based on the notion that people like to form social groups. People like to feel belonging. Most people know about this property since it is evident all around us – in religion, sports teams or in our professional lives. Rock claim the sense of belonging is a remnant from our early days where strangers from outside our community normally meant trouble.

Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

Fairness is a factor that can explain a feeling of reward in altruistic behavior, such as volunteer work or charity.  

I think the most interesting way to reduce the threat from unfairness in the work place is transparency. For me transparency means access to the rationale behind decisions that affect me.

For me, thinking about social behavior in the light of the SCARF model reinforces practices known to be efficient by providing a rationale. And vice versa for inefficient behavior. It offers an explanation to why some people are better communicators than others. And all in terms of how the brain actually works. Amazing. I strongly believe keeping the model in the back of your head will allow you to maneuver the social landscape more vigorously.


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About Jimmy Rosenberg

As the Conceptualizer in Tolpagorni, Jimmy has a constant urge to learn new things and thus spend a lot of his spare time following technology- and science- related progress in different media. His interests together with his education have made him appreciate how the exponential advances in technology continue to integrate innovations and new products in the everyday lives.

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