The idea of rewards and threats is a major theme that has emerged in the field of social neuroscience, which explores the biological foundations of the way humans relate to each other and themselves. According to Integrative Neuroscientist Evian Gordon, our brains have an overarching, organizing principle to ‘minimize danger and maximize reward’ (Gordon, 2000). This principle is similar to the concept of the approach-avoid response. This states that we instinctively see a stimulus as either ‘good’ (approach) or ‘bad’ (avoid) and react accordingly. Our responses are particularly strong when our survival depends on them - we quickly recall what is good or bad in our environment. This is a primitive response - we approach food that is known to be edible and avoid food that is poisonous. We avoid animals that could kill us and approach animals that could provide food.
Research has shown that our brains respond in similar ways in social interactions (Lieberman & Eisenberger, 2008). We approach things that are perceived as rewarding and avoid those we see as a threat. Exactly what we see as social rewards and threats is explored further in the SCARF model.
The threat response
A threat response releases cortisol and other stress-related hormones in the brain. (Cortisol has been found to be an accurate biological marker of the threat response). Research has also shown that we react quicker, stronger, and the effect lasts longer for threats than for rewards. The impact of a threat is to divert our brain resources to deal with the threat, taking away our brain resources for analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving.
In handling conflict, a perceived threat diverts our brain’s resources exactly when we need our sophisticated mental capabilities. We react in a similar way to the fight, flight or freeze response, inhibiting our ability to empathise, co-operate with others and think rationally.
The reward response
During a reward response the brain responds in the same way that it does for an unexpected financial windfall. Neurotransmitters are released that raise dopamine levels and lead to feelings of satisfaction and pleasure.
The concepts of threats and rewards are described in more detail by David Rock in SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.
Lieberman & Eisenberg (2008) The pains and pleasures of social life, NeuroLeadership Journal.
Rock (2009) Managing with the Brain in Mind, Strategy+Business.