The human brain is organized under a simple operating principle – maximize reward and minimize threat. Sometimes we express this basic principle as an attempt to avoid pain and engage pleasure or the willingness to approach versus attack.
Regardless of how we express this idea, it is at work when our five senses feed our brains raw data, which the brain then classifies as threatening or rewarding. As often noted, this response system is attributed to our species’ survival-centric past.
When the data received is classified as rewarding our brains signal to us that we are safe to engage. This state of being has been associated in studies with enhanced problem solving, insight, and collaboration.
When, on the other hand, our brains classify incoming data as threatening, our state of being is much different. Mental resources are diverted from the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for abstract thinking, analysis, self-management, and the capacity to predict likely outcomes. The ability to perceive subtle or contextual signals needed for problem solving and collaboration is significantly decreased, and the individual under threat will tend to think in more generalized terms and be less willing to take risks.
Researchers now understand that the neurological networks that constitute this basic classification system of threatening or safe are largely the same for physical and social threats and rewards.
In “SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others,” David Rock outlines the social circumstances that can trigger our brains’ reward and threat responses . SCARF is an acronym for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness .
If a negotiator remains mindful of these five domains when working with the other side, he or she can avoid triggering threat responses while simultaneously engaging the reward response of their counterpart. This is a scenario which makes for a much more effective and pleasant negotiation and is critical to collaborative problem solving.
Status is one’s sense of importance in relation to others. It is threatened when one’s perceived importance or rank is challenged or demoted, and it is rewarded when one is acknowledged and shown appreciation.
Within the context of a negotiation, status threats are easily triggered through positional bargaining. When one negotiator challenges another, a status threat is the likely result, which is one reason this this type of bargaining exercise can be ineffective.
If a negotiator would like to trigger the other side’s reward response, they can easily do so by listening, asking for the other side’s advice, and acknowledging the merit of the other side’s perspective. All three of these actions are inexpensive and effective concessions to offer your counterpart.
The Certainty domain is about our desire for security in future outcomes and is driven by our brains’ reliance on pattern recognition as a means to save processing capacity. When certainty decreases, our threat responses are triggered; when certainty increases, our reward responses are triggered.
Keeping in mind the other side’s desire for certainty at the negotiation table allows for more skillful communication within and execution of the negotiation process. By avoiding ambiguous and evasive communication, we avoid triggering a threat response. By explicitly discussing our perspective, we can give the other side certainty within the negotiation context.
If we want to engage the other side’s certainty reward response, we can propose process options like jointly mapping out both sides’ issues and interests to get a clearer sense of the full landscape of mutual and conflicting interests. When we are in the closing stage of the negotiation, we can also engage the reward response by being thorough, clear, and explicit in the agreement we reach.
“Autonomy is the perception of exerting control over one’s environment; a sensation of having choices.” In a negotiation the threat and reward responses are engaged based on how much control or influence the negotiators perceive they have over the outcome of the discussion – more control equals more autonomy reward; less control equals more autonomy threat.
It may be too obvious to note, but the mere act of negotiating with another entails a dramatic reduction in one’s sense of autonomy. That is one reason that negotiating can seem so stressful – it is an exercise in being out of control.
Here it helps to signal to the other party that you are open to their influence and want to understand the options they find most desirable for agreement. These steps can reduce the risk of threat. Brainstorming, jointly selecting fair standards for settlement, and using techniques like ‘you split, I choose’ (i.e. if two siblings were trying to settle the inheritance of a single piece of property, one sibling could be given autonomy to divide the property while the other sibling is giving the autonomy to choose which piece of the property they want) help to activate the brain’s reward responses.
The Relatedness domain stems from our brains’ recognition of “In” and “Out” groups. Our reward system is trigger by being around those we perceive as being in our “In” group, and our threat system is triggered by being around those we consider in our “Out” group.
This is a very germane consideration for negotiation. Many times we have to negotiate with those who are perceived as outsiders. From international conflict resolution to intra-community disputes over gentrification, relatedness can pay a key role in reaching agreement.
Building rapport with the other side in a negotiation is the key means of diminishing threat responses and increasing the reward responses associated with this domain. For negotiators this means that both time and interest have to be invested in getting to know the other side as a human not a professional counterpart. This process may not be fast or natural, but the value of creating a sense of relatedness is the higher quality interactions in the subsequent negotiations.
The final domain of consideration is Fairness, which is “a lack of favoritism toward one side or another” . We intuitively know how threatening it can be if someone is treated unfairly. It can trigger resistance and even anger in the person who perceives that are not be treated equally. However, when a person senses they are being treated fairly, it can engage the brain’s reward system and produce a sense of ease and satisfaction.
In negotiation, the concept of objective criteria or fair standards used as a means of settling conflict issues can serve both as a protection against threat and a catalyst for reward. When both parties find criteria which are independent of the subjective perception of either side, they will be satisfied knowing that they reached a fair means of settling their dispute. However, if one side tries to impose their desired settlement upon the other without persuading the other side of the fairness of their perspective, they will trigger the other side’s threat response, and agreement will be more difficult to achieve.
The SCARF Model provides the negotiator with a well-established map of the potential socio-neurological pitfalls to avoid when trying to find common ground with others. By keeping in mind the other side’s (and your own) need for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, you will be in a much better position to easily avoid triggering the other side’s threat responses, which can damage or derail you effort at negotiating.
- David Rock, “SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others,” NeuroLeadership Journal, 2008.
- Yes, this is very similar to Fisher and Shapiro’s theory in Beyond Reason.
- “Fairness,” Merriam-Webster.com, Accessed April 24, 2015, http://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/fairness