SCARF model by David Rock

SCARF model - Toolshero

SCARF model: this article explains the SCARF model, developed by David Rock in a practical way. The article contains the definition and meaning of the acronym SCARF, followed by information on the origin of this model and an in-depth explanation of the 5 different social domains. Enjoy reading!

What is the SCARF model?

The SCARF model is a framework for understanding and analyzing the social domains that activate a reward or threat response in the human brain. The model was developed by David Rock, a well-known leadership expert and neuroscientist. The model was introduced in 2008 in the NeuroLeadership Journal, entitled “SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others”.

The model is based on research from neuroscience and psychology and shows that the human brain is programmed to respond to social stimuli. This is done in a way that shows a so-called reward or threat trigger.

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According to the model, when a reward trigger is triggered, the brain releases various neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and oxytocin.

These hormones are known as feel-good hormones and often result in positive emotions and behaviors. In the event of a threat trigger, the brain releases stress hormones, such as cortisol. This often leads to negative emotions and behaviors.

The SCARF model identifies five social domains that can provide these triggers:

  1. Status
  2. Certainty
  3. Autonomy
  4. Relatedness
  5. Fairness

The model suggests that understanding these social domains is crucial to constructing environments and interactions that produce positive triggers. This makes it possible to prevent negative emotions and behaviors. Effectively managing these social domains can lead to more effective collaborations, communication and leadership.

The model has been widely adopted in several industries, including:

  • Business
  • Education
  • Healthcare

It has been praised for its ability to provide a simple yet powerful framework for users concerned with understanding social dynamics and social behavior.

Although the models have different emphasis, the SCARF model can be seen as a complement to Maslow’s theory of needs, as it helps to understand how individuals’ social needs influence their behavior and motivation.

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The 5 domains as described by the SCARF model

Below you will find an explanation of the five domains of the SCARF model.


Status is the first of the five domains and describes an individual’s relative position in a social hierarchy or group. It is important to note that status is a relative construction. That means it is not an absolute quality that one can possess, but rather based on one’s position in relation to others.

A perceived threat to a person’s status can trigger a strong threat response in the brain. A reward, such as positive feedback or acknowledgment from this social group, can actually trigger a strong reward response. A threat can lead to feelings of anger and resentment, while a reward can lead to feelings of motivation, confidence and satisfaction.

Status can be influenced by a variety of factors, such as:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Profession

These factors can construct an environment in which someone has more influence and power than other people in that environment. This hierarchy, in turn, influences how people view their own status in relation to others.

In general, people tend to behave in ways that enhance their status, such as displaying wealth, knowledge, or power. At the same time, these behaviors can be seen by others as a threat to their status.

This also happens in an organizational setting. The status domain often plays an important role in employee motivation and performance.

An example. If an employee is often praised for his or her performance, this can lead to increased motivation and involvement. A lack of recognition can actually lead to a threat response, resulting in reduced motivation and involvement.


The social domain of certainty in the SCARF model is one of five domains described in David Rock’s SCARF model, which helps to understand and explain social behavior and interactions.

The domain of certainty is about an individual’s need for predictability and control. In other words, people prefer to have a sense of what will happen next and want to make themselves feel in control of their environment.

Uncertainty and ambiguity can trigger a threat response in the brain, triggering negative emotions and behaviors such as fear, stress, and avoidance.

On the other hand, certainty and clear expectations can activate the reward mechanism in the brain, which leads to positive emotions and behaviors such as self-confidence, motivation and engagement.

In social situations, uncertainty can arise for various reasons, such as:

  • Changes in routines or procedures
  • Lack of information
  • Unclear expectations

These sources of uncertainty can lead to stress and anxiety, which can affect the performance of individuals and groups.

In organizational settings, providing clear communication, well-defined roles and responsibilities, and consistent procedures can help reduce uncertainty and foster a sense of control and predictability among employees. This can lead to improved motivation, engagement and performance.

It is important to note that too much certainty can also be a problem. When everything is too predictable and routinely, individuals can feel bored or disengaged, which can lead to decreased motivation and performance. It is therefore important to strike a balance between certainty and novelty to promote optimal performance and engagement.


The social domain of autonomy helps to understand and explain social behavior and interactions. The domain of autonomy deals with an individual’s need for control over his or her own decisions.

All people have an innate desire to make their own choices that affect their lives. When individuals feel they have no control over their environment or decisions, it can lead to feelings of helplessness and frustration.

On the other hand, the sense of control and autonomy can lead to positive emotions and behaviors, such as self-confidence and motivation.

In social situations, such as the workplace, the sense of autonomy can be threatened in various ways, such as micromanagement or lack of participation in decision-making. These threats to autonomy can lead to negative emotions and behaviors, such as resentment and disengagement.

In organizational settings, promoting autonomy can actually be beneficial for employee motivation and engagement.

An example of this is providing opportunities for individuals to make decisions and take ownership of their work, and by offering them flexible work regulations that give them greater control over their schedule and work environment.

However, it is important to note that too much autonomy can also become a problem. When individuals have too much freedom and experience a lack of guidance or structure, this can lead to confusion and reduced performance. It is therefore important to find a balance here as well.


Relatedness means as much as kinship, or connectedness. The domain of connectedness in the SCARF model refers to an individual’s need for connection and social interaction with others.

Humans are social beings and have an innate desire for connection and belonging. When individuals have a sense of connection with others, it can lead to positive emotions such as happiness and contentment. Conversely, the feeling of isolation or exclusion can lead to negative emotions such as loneliness and sadness.

In social situations, connectedness can be threatened in various ways, such as exclusion or lack of social support. These threats to belonging can lead to negative emotions and behaviors such as withdrawal.

In organizational settings, fostering connectedness can actually benefit employee well-being and engagement.

However, it is important to note that not all individuals have the same need for connection.

Some people may be more introverted or independent and may not need social interaction as much as others. It is therefore important to understand individual differences in the need for relatedness.


The social domain of fairness is the last of the five domains described by the SCARF model. The fairness domain refers to people’s perception of fairness and justice in social situations.

People often have a strong sense of justice and fairness and get upset when they feel they are being treated unfairly. This then regularly leads to negative emotions such as anger and resentment.

When individuals feel they are being treated fairly, this can actually lead to positive emotions such as trust and satisfaction.

In social situations, fairness can be threatened in various ways, such as discrimination or bias. These threats to fairness can lead to negative emotions and behaviors such as distrust and retaliation.

In organizational settings, promoting fairness is important for employee motivation and engagement.

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation of the SCARF model? How do you deal with dishonesty, for example? Can you think of a situation where your perception of fairness became a threat? And how did you react to that? Do you have other tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership journal, 1(1), 44-52.
  2. Basetoli Mishkat, M. M. (2015). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and SCARF Model: Arecompatible or contradictory in contemporary management practice?. International Journal in Management & Social Science, 3(11), 579-590.
  3. Rock, D., & Cox, C. (2012). SCARF in 2012: Updating the social neuroscience of collaborating with others. NeuroLeadership journal, 4(4), 1-16.

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2023). SCARF model by David Rock. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 11/16/2023 | Last update: 11/16/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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