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The five domains of human social experience:the SCARF model

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I recently came across David Rock’s Psychology Today blog named your brain at work. He has recently published a book by the same name and though I haven’t read the book yet, I was sufficiently engrossed by his ideas to read up on his  proposed SCARF model in the NueroLeadership journal (2008). David has himself written a series of five posts explaining each domain of his SCARF model, so you can refer them and read starlight from the horse’s mouth. David maintains that the five major goals of human brain are geared towards maintaining (increasing positive and reducing negative) these five dimensions- Certainty, Autonomy, Status, Relatedness and Fairness. Please note that I have reordered the SCARF factors as per the fit with my own 5 and 8 stage theoretic models.

I’ll now quote extensively from his NeuroLeadership article and try to integrate this within my fisrt 5 stages of development/evolution. :

The SCARF model involves five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. And fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

These five domains activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry (and associated networks) of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward.

It is my contention that these domains or brain regions specific to these domains evolved because of the peculiar demands of each type of social situation and need. And I also wish to relate this to personality evolution especially the five factor OCEAN model. Perhaps some people who are more Open to experience are also having regions more sensitive to Fairness.

In a nutshell, in increasing evolutionary stages, the mapping is as follows: Certainty: Neurtoicsim; Autonomy: Conscientiousness;Status: Extraversion; Relatedness: Agreeableness; and Fairness: Openness to Experience.


The brain is a pattern-recognition machine that is constantly trying to predict the near future. For example, the motor network is useless without the sensory system. To pick up a cup of coffee, the sensory system, sensing the position of the fingers at each moment, interacts dynamically with the motor cortex to determine where to move your fingers next. Your fingers don’t draw on fresh data each time; the brain draws on the memory of what a cup is supposed to feel like in the hand, based on expectations drawn from previous experiences. If it feels different, perhaps slippery, you immediately pay attention (Hawkins, 2004). The brain likes to know the pattern occurring moment to moment, it craves certainty, so that prediction is possible. Without prediction, the brain must use dramatically more resources, involving the more energy-intensive prefrontal cortex, to process moment-to-moment experience.

Even a small amount of uncertainty generates an ‘error’ response in the orbital frontal cortex (OFC). This takes attention away from one’s goals, forcing attention to the error (Hedden, Garbrielli, 2006). If someone is not telling you the whole truth, or acting incongruously, the resulting uncertainty can fire up errors in the OFC. This is like having a flashing printer icon on your desktop when paper is jammed – the flashing cannot be ignored, and until it is resolved it is difficult to focus on other things. Larger uncertainties, like not knowing your boss’ expectations or if your job is secure, can be highly debilitating.

Much of Neuroticism is marked by anxiety and worry about unforeseens- a personality trait directly fine tuned to detecting and being sensitive to uncertainties in the environment. A nervous person is easily affected by uncertainties while a calm person hardly bothers about his predictive abilities and doesn’t get bothered no matter what the future may have in store.


Autonomy is the perception of exerting control over one’s environment; a sensation of having choices. Mieka (1985) showed that the degree of control organisms can exert over a stress factor determines whether or not the stressor alters the organism’s functioning. Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be highly destructive, whereas the same stress interpreted as escapable is significantly less destructive. (Donny et al, 2006). The difference in some rodent studies was life and death (Dworkin et al, 1995).
An increase in the perception of autonomy feels rewarding. Several studies in the retirement industry find strong correlations between a sense of control and health outcomes (Rodin, 1986). People leave corporate life, often for far less income, because they desire greater autonomy. A reduction in autonomy, for example when being micro managed, can generate a strong threat response. When one senses a lack of control, the experience is of a lack of agency, or an inability to influence outcomes.

Dopamine is heavily involved in this system – the feeling of choice of control is a theme underlying conscientiousness trait too- whether one is conscientious and acts in a methodical manner assuming one has control over events or one cats irresponsibly and without feelings of agency.


In researcher Michael Marmot’s book The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, Marmot makes the case that status is the most significant determinant of human longevity and health, even when controlling for education and income. This finding is supported by Sapolski’s work with primates (Sapolski, 2002). Sapolski found that in primate communities, status equals survival: higher status monkeys have lower baseline cortisol levels, live longer and are healthier.
Status is about relative importance, ‘pecking order’ and seniority. Humans hold a representation of status in relation to others when in conversations, and this affects mental processes in many ways (Zink, 2008). The brain thinks about status using similar circuits for processing numbers (Chaio, 2003). One’s sense of status goes up when one feels ‘better than’ another person. In this instance the primary reward circuitry is activated, in particular the striatum, which increases dopamine levels. One study showed that an increase in status was similar in strength to a financial windfall (Izuma et al, 2008). Winning a swimming race, a card game or an argument probably feels good because of the perception of increased status and the resulting reward circuitry being activated.
The perception of a potential or real reduction in status can generate a strong threat response. Eisenberger and colleagues showed that a reduction in status resulting from being left out of an activity lit up the same regions of the brain as physical pain (Eisenberger et al., 2003). While this study explores social rejection, it is closely connected to the experience of a drop in status.

The third stage and personality trait of extarversion is all about one-up-manship, hierarchy and kissing the boss’s arse. If you are good and sensitive to power games you are more extrovert (directed towards the world), else you are more inner directed or intravert.


Relatedness involves deciding whether others are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group. Whether someone is friend, or foe. Relatedness is a driver of behavior in many types of teams, from sports teams to organizational silos: people naturally like to form ‘tribes’ where they experience a sense of belonging. The concept of being inside or outside the group is probably a by-product of living in small communities for millions of years, where strangers were likely to be trouble and should be avoided.

The decision that someone is friend or foe happens quickly and impacts brain functioning (Carter & Pelphrey, 2008). For example, information from people perceived as ‘like us’ is processed using similar circuits for thinking one’s own thoughts. When someone is perceived as a foe, different circuits are used (Mitchell, 2006). Also, when treating someone as a competitor, the capacity to empathise drops significantly (Singer et al, 2006).

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo talks about the need for safe human contact being a primary driver, like the need for food (Cacioppo, 2008). In the absence of safe social interactions the body generates a threat response, also known as feeling lonely. However, meeting someone unknown tends to generate an automatic threat response. This explains why one feels better at a party knowing three people rather than one. Alcohol helps to reduce this automatic social threat response, enabling strangers to communicate more easily, hence its use as a social lubricant the world over. In the absence of alcohol, getting from foe to friend can be helped by an oxytocin response, an experience of connecting with the other person. Oxytocin is a hormone produced naturally in the brain, and higher levels of this substance are associated with greater affiliative behavior (Domes et al, 2007). Studies have shown far greater collaboration when people are given a shot of oxytocin, through a nasal spray. (Kosfield, 2005). A handshake, swapping names and discussing something in common, be it just the weather, may increase feeling of closeness by causing the release of oxytocin (Zak et al, 2005). The concept of relatedness is closely linked to trust. One trusts those who appear to be in your group, who one has connected with, generating approach emotions. And when someone does something untrustworthy, the usual response is to withdraw. The greater that people trust one another, the stronger the collaboration and the more information that is shared.

The fourth stage/trait of Agreeableness is undoubtedly analogous to the relatedness social domain. Note the focus on in-group versus out-group dynamic at this stage and the importance of oxytocin at this stage.


Studies by Golnaz Tabibnia and Matthew Lieberman at UCLA showed that 50 cents generated more of a reward in the brain than $10.00, when it was 50 cents out of a dollar, and the $10 was out of $50 (Tabibnia & Lieberman, 2007). This study and a number of others illustrate that fair exchanges are intrinsically rewarding, independent of other factors. The need for fairness may be part of the explanation as to why people experience internal rewards for doing volunteer work to improve their community; it is a sense of decreasing the unfairness in the world.
Unfair exchanges generate a strong threat response (Tabibnia & Lieberman, 2007). This sometimes includes activation of the insular, a part of the brain involved in intense emotions such as disgust. Unfair situations may drive people to die to right perceived injustices, such as in political struggles. People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished (Singer et al, 2006).

The last stage /trait of opennesses to experience/conformity/rebellion is directly mapped to sense of fairness and inequity aversion. Note also the visceral references to sense of taste by activation of disgust module in these cases of inequity aversions. The famous capachuin monkeys study also comes to mind where monkey refused cucumber when their colleagues got grape slices.

Overall, David Rock has provided an important framework that fits within the 5 stage theoretic model and has proven useful in industrial and organisational psychology. It would be good if more and more people started paying attention to the five stage theories (extendable to 8 stages), many things become clear and easy to remember when viewed from that particular lens.

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