The SCARF model was developed by David Rock and is the result of his study of the the results of many research projects. The model is a useful way to remember areas of need that can trigger reward and threat responses during social interaction. Rock’s research shows that if these social interaction needs are met we are more likely engage through our reward response. If these needs are not met, or fall short, we perceive a threat and avoid, or withdraw. The model categorises these needs as Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. The SCARF model is briefly outlined below.


In our social encounters we assess our relative status to those we interact with. If we feel that our status is higher than that of others we experience the reward response. If we consider our status is less than that of others we experience a threat response. Our comparisons are in the context of each social situation. In one situation we might experience a threat response and in another a reward response. For example, in one situation the comparison might be in terms of relative wealth, and in another how good we are at a specific sport, or skill, relative to others.

When dealing with conflict it is important to try to create a situation where everyone feels they are being treated as an equal and avoid either response being triggered.


When we are in a familiar situation our brains run on a kind of automatic pilot, which enables us to conserve valuable brain energy. Our brains continuously judge if we are in a familiar situation where the pattern of what is likely to happen next is known. This familiarity frees us to do more than one thing at the same time, for example, drive and talk.

When an uncertain situation arises our brains register it as an error, gap, or tension: something that must be corrected before we can return to our automatic pilot. This is why people prefer certainty; it’s harder work dealing with exceptions.

The greater the level of uncertainty the more more debilitating it can be, requiring more mental energy, diminishing memory, undermining performance, and disengaging people from the present.

For some people, a minor level of uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing and can generate a degree of interest and attention. This triggers a mild threat response delivering a small adrenaline release. It is our perceived level of uncertainty that triggers a response and each person has their individual comfort level.

When dealing with conflict it is helpful to minimise the level of uncertainty for everyone involved, letting people know what is planned, what is likely to happen and what can be done if the unexpected happens.


A lack of autonomy produces a threat response. Most people are happier and less stressed when they have control over their lives. Reduced autonomy has been shown to increase stress levels, hindering people’s ability to function at their best. In the work environment, people generally do not like to be micro-managed and are more effective when they can organise their time and workload. People who leave corporate life to set up their own businesses report that they find it more rewarding, even though they often work longer hours and earn less.

Our need for autonomy is related to our need for certainty. The more we are in control of our lives, the more certainty it gives us.

Parts of the restorative dialogue process are helped by providing a sense of autonomy. For example, the participants in a circle producing the guidelines by which the circle operates, and thinking in terms of possibilities for action means that options are available.


Human beings are inherently tribal, our ancestors lived in tribes for tens of thousands of years. The tribe was a way to live and survive. Being able to identify between a member of your tribe and another tribe could be a matter of life and death. The ability to know friend from foe could be fundamental to survival.

That same instinct operates today, in the form of a desire to be connected socially with ‘people like us’. Positive social connection is a fundamental need, we tend to collect with people who have similar interests or attitudes. Many people find being with others they don’t know to be stressful as the automatic response to a new social connection involves a threat response. We are constantly trying to work out if the new people we meet are like us, or not. This can be alleviated to some extent if the connection is perceived to be with people like us - people with the same interests and attitudes. To increase the reward response from relatedness, the key is to find ways to increase safe connections between people.


Our desire for fairness can generate some of our strongest responses. Just think about how you have felt, and reacted, when you considered that you, or others, were not being treated fairly.

Fairness can also link to autonomy in that in situations where groups have control of how they operate, ways of working are more likely to be based on what is seen as fair to those involved.

One reason why working in a circle is a successful approach to dealing with conflict involving a group of people is that it is seen as fair with everyone being treated equally.


Rock (2008) SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.

Rock (2009) Managing with the Brain in Mind, Strategy+Business.