Want to Explain Social Behavior? Look into the Brain

social brainLet’s start with a short mental exercise… Please try to remember and note down (for the sake of further discussion here) a recent social situation, be it at work, in your family or during leisure time, when you felt slightly concerned, worried or annoyed (e.g., your boss gave you critical feedback). Now, let’s do the same exercise with a recent ‘positive’ situation that comes to your mind. Can you think of a social situation in which you felt good, satisfied, relieved or happy (e.g., you won an argument)? Please note it down as well.

So, now that you have a negative and a positive event jotted down, or in your mind, I would claim that I can fairly accurately explain your experiences, i.e. the reasons for both positive and negative emotions. No, this is neither ‘crystal ball’ magic, nor am I going to try to get personal with your childhood experiences, instead I am just turning to the study of the brain and a few overarching organizing principle of how the human brain works.

According to neuroscientists this fundamental organizing principle of the brain is called ‘threat and reward response’. In essence, it is our survival mechanism, which we have inherited from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In a similar vein that our brain’s autonomic nervous system reacts to footsteps behind our back in a dark corner (threat) or the availability of food when we are hungry (reward), our brains seem to react to triggers in social situations. Indeed, social neuroscience argues that ‘several domains of social experience draw upon the same brain networks to maximize reward and minimize threat as the brain networks used for primary survival needs’. Coming back to our initial mental exercise, I can thus assume that in case of your negative event, something threatened you, while in the positive event you got rewarded with something. What is this something though?

One model of brain functioning proposed by David Rock (2008) explains it brilliantly in my opinion. The SCARF model captures five common domains that can activate reward or threat response in social situations, namely, Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

  • Status is about your standing relative to others, the sense of being ‘better than’ or ‘worse than’ another person. So, when your boss is criticizing you, your sense of status might go down and you experience a ‘threat’ response. By contrast, while winning an argument is a status reward, which makes us feel good.
  • Certainty is about trying to predict the near future and feeling safe. Your boss called you into his/her office without explaining the objective of the meeting? Certainty threat. You signed a long-term contract with one of your customers? Certainty reward.
  • Autonomy is about exerting control over one’s environment and having choices. You are likely to trigger a threat response in your kids, when explaining your decisions with ‘because I said so’. But allowing your kids to organize their leisure time without micromanagement from your part, can increase autonomy rewards.
  • Relatedness is about relationships with others and feelings of being included or excluded. How does it feel not being invited to a party? What is important is that researchers link relatedness to the feeling of trust. We relate to the people we trust and withdraw from someone, who abuses it.
  • Fairness. What would feel better, being given 50 cents from a dollar split between you and another person, or to receive $8 out of a total of $25? Studies by Golnaz Tabibnia and Matthew Lieberman at UCLA (2007) show that the first option would generate a fairness reward response, while the second a threat response. Indeed, fairness triggers are so strong that people are ready to die in the name of fairness. I would argue that the fairness trigger is also a very influential mechanism used in politics (e.g., Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants; attitudes towards refugees).

Now, if you will, please get back to your chosen events and see if you can recognize one or several of the drivers involved there.

Apart from being applicable to personal experience and a wealth of leadership topics, the SCARF model also seems to be a great practical tool for global mobility professionals. As CORT’s global account manager Jon Harman puts it, the assignee experience may be greatly improved if we take into account brain theories, such as SCARF. I will elaborate on my ideas in implementing SCARF within the global mobility context in my next blog entry.

8 thoughts on “Want to Explain Social Behavior? Look into the Brain

  1. Totally. SCARF model explains things well. If I may add a little medical flavor to the topic. The reward circuits in the brain depend on Dopamine as a neurotransmitter and when you win a race or score highest in an exam this circuit gets activated to induce pleasure and to build memory that if you work hard you get pleasure. God’s mechanism to keep us going. Correspondingly, alcohol and some other substances induce this circuit just by consumption. Here again brain learns that pleasure is easy – just by consuming these substances – which gets the person to do it more often and in higher quantities – leading to addiction.

  2. The topic is very interesting, I think the SCARF model has similarities with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Human instincts are similar to animals and endocrinology definitely helps to understand the correlation between the instinctive action and hormones.

  3. I completely agree with you as I was looking for some information on negative emotions and how it affects the thinking. Your article seems to be really interesting.

  4. So long as their purpose is a social act, actions are social whether involving other selves or not, whether anticipating another’s acts, actions, or practices. The actions of an adolescent running away from home and living in a commune for a year to prove his independence to his parents and those of a physicist working in an isolated laboratory for years on a secret weapon are both social.

  5. A threat is everything that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is everything that may cause the temporary loss of a resource and may cause submissive behavior or flight, without the submissive individual incurring injury. Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals, visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

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