SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others

I remember hearing/reading about SCARF a few years back, but a recent conversation with a colleague made it top of mind for me again, so I decided to give it a deeper look.

In a nutshell, SCARF is a framework for understanding human social behavior through a neuroscience lens. It has broad applicability, prior to an interaction (predicting how people would react to certain conversation), during an interaction (helping to regulate responses to more tactical reactions) and after an interaction (explaining the root causes behind the outcome).

At its core, SCARF argues that human social behavior is dictated primarily by the human survival instinct, also known as approach-avoid, reward-threat, or fight-flight. SCARF then posits that human behavior can be analyzed and evaluated through the threats/rewards that a certain action triggers in each one of  5 domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness.

Below is a very crude summary, meant to give you a tase of framework and how it can be applied:


Definition Examples of reducing threats and increasing rewards
Status One’s sense of importance relative to others Perf Reviews/Feedback  – Allowing people to give themselves feedback on their own performance

Paying attention / acknowledging learning and improvement

Certainty One’s need for clarity and the ability to make accurate predictions about the future Encourage planing, decompose large projects to small tasks, set clear expectations on what’s likely to happen and what are the desired outcomes

Make implicit concepts more explicit


Autonomy The sense of control over events in one’s life and the sense that one’s behavior has an effect on the outcome of the situation Provide choices/options rather than dictate a certain course of action

Give control over L&D, workflow mgmt, working hours, etc.

Relatedness One’s sense of connection to and security with another person (in-group vs. out-of-group) Informal meetings, share personal stories,

Clearly defined “buddy systems”, mentoring, or coaching programs. Small groups are safer than large groups

Fairness Just and non-biased exchange between peoples Increasing transparency, increasing level of communication and involvement about business issues.

Set clear ground rules, expectations and objectives. Or even better, let set their owns.


It’s worth noting that some situations / actions force an unaviodable threat in one domain. But thoughtful design can often times help mitigate its impact by offerring rewards in other domains.

A later paper, published 4 years after the original one, covers more recent developments in the study of each domain and the framework in general. Perhaps the most interesting findings have to do with the individual variation in SCARF profiles (different people may be more/less sensitive to threat/reward in a certain domain) and the interconnections between SCARF domains, namely: status and relatedness, and certainty and relatedness.

The authors identify several areas where SCARF can be applied: managing oneself, educating and training, coaching, leadership development and organizational systems.  After spending a week looking at coaching and organizational systems tasks through a SCARF lens, I’m positively surprised by its ability to guide towards better outcomes. It’s a tool that I plan to keep at the top of my toolbox more than I did in the past.


Benchmarks and Guardrails

“Act in the company’s best interest”
“Exercise good judgement”
“Spend company’s money like it’s your own”

These fuzzy guidelines are the typical aggressive course-corrections to old school corporate policies around budgeting (enforcing a rigid spending cap).
As Dan Ruch argues in:
The worst business mantra is “spend the company’s money like it’s your own”
They can easily backfire.

Traditional “max-spend” policies, whether on travel, meals, office supplies or time-off, often come across as tyrannical and bureaucratic. But most importantly, the encourage a “use it or lose it” mentality that’s at odds with everyone’s best interest.

But the alternative, judgement-driven policies are also not without fault:

  1. Ambiguity– the ambiguity in such policies leads to people constantly questioning their choices. Fear, indecision and abuse, are additional likely side effects. When you can’t tell what’s reasonable, choice becomes a burden, and fearing the consequences of every decision that you make is not real freedom. Choices have a biological cost in the form of “decision fatigue” – a negative impact to the quality of decision making, and overall productivity that we would all rather avoid.
  2. Counter-productive under-spending – Whether as an attempt to minimize the chance of unintentionally over-spending (and suffering the consequences as a result),  or due to some people’s natural tendency to frugality, and other psychological biases (like a misguided hero syndrome), counter-productive under-spending in not unlikely. Under-spending on a client dinner, taking a 3-connections flight, or not taking enough time-off can all result in negative implications to the business.

Is there a way to avoid the short-comings of both “max-spend” and “judgement-based” policies?

Dan argues that the answer is “yes”, through designing policies that adhere to these two principles:

  1. Provide benchmarks – use historical data to provide a relevant guideline for “what’s reasonable”. For example: “on average, employees spend $xxx/night, when booking hotels in city X”. Providing an anchoring point for “what’s reasonable” reduces fear and decision fatigue while leaving the door open for varying from the average for a good reason.
  2.  Set minimum guardrails – a “minimum-spend” guideline, can reduce the risk of counter-productive under-spending, without encouraging a “use it or lose it” mentality.
Benchmarks and Guardrails

Fixing Fitness Apps

I’m taking a one-post break from org design to talk about behavior science instead.

About a months ago, Nir Eyal wrote a rather depressing on the ineffectiveness of fitness apps in helping people become more fit:

Your Fitness App is Making You Fat

I think Nir is absolutely right that fitness apps don’t drive the long term behavior change necessary to become physically fit; And that gamification, the only behavioral tactics used by many of these apps, is insufficient to driving such change.
I was disappointed, however, to see him making the bold, contrarian hypothesis that fitness apps are in fact making people fatter without supporting it with data. But the truth of the matter is that this doesn’t matter much. What matters is how we can fix them.
Nir looks at Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and the iPhone as products that were successful in changing user behavior. Specifically, enabling the users to form habits around using the apps by making the usage experience fun. He then draws the conclusion that fixing fitness apps will require them to make physical activity fun. I disagree with the conclusion since the analogy is far from perfect: If I’m using Facebook more, it does not mean that I have deeper social relationships. Using my fitness app more is not an indication that I’m getting more fit. Driving outcomes in the real-world is much more challenging, and measurement is not as straight forward. But it’s doable. Omada seems to be on the right track to getting it right.
Nonetheless, there is a lesson, that fitness apps should adopt from the various social networks – creating a real network effect in their business model. Chris Dixon put it beautifully in “come for the tool, stay for the network“. The few fitness apps that made some attempt to create such an effect, like MapMyRun, seem to have fared better than the rest.
Finally, the kind of behavior change we’re talking about here is much more complex. Getting healthier has an intrinsic level of discomfort: feeling hungry is unpleasant. So does physical strain. Making a phone call and tweeting, in comparison, are rather innocuous. We need to dig deeper into our behavior science trove in order to build up the necessary motivation needed to voluntarily undertake such experiences.
Fixing Fitness Apps

Building Badass Users

This is one of the better talks on product management, user experience and behavior science that I’ve seen recently. It was given by Kathy Sierra in the last Mind The Product conference:

Building Badass Users

It’s always hard to summarize content delivered by a great speaker. So much gets lost in translation. But my best attempt to do so, in this case, is below:

Kathy’s initial premise is that the key attributes of a successful product don’t live in the product – they live in its users.  People want to be amazing in what the tool enables them to do, not at using the tool. For example: people want to be amazing photographers, not amazing at using your camera.  So what really matters is the “post-ux ux”, what happens in the real world, after people have used your tool.

Furthermore, the things that prevent users from completing the user journey (becoming really good at the context they’re using the tool for) are derailers that live outside of your tool. Therefore, the solution, is not adding more motivation for using the tool, but reducing/minimizing the derailers. Those, in turn, tend to have a common root cause – a reduction in ability and/or willpower caused by cognitive leaks.

She then suggests six ways to reduce cognitive leaks:

  1. Delegating usability from your head to the real world. Often times the opposite happens as a result of trying to create “simple” or “streamlined” UIs.
  2. Creating defaults and smart filters. Making choices is cognitively expensive.
  3. Reducing the need for willpower. Turning actions into habits.
  4. Making it easier to focus. Using the brain’s “natural” attention grabbers: scary things, faces with strong emotional content, innocent/cute things, things that change (visually). And making sure that you’re not unintentionally using these things to draw attention in the wrong direction.
  5. Helping the brain let it go. Giving clear, clean feedback that the user can trust, on actions that the user have taken.
  6. Giving them faith that you know what it’s really like. We often act as if the actions we expect the users to take are simple and easy, when we should acknowledge that some things are hard. Examples: Wasabi’s “I’m freaking out” button, Kindle Fire’s “Mayday” button.
Building Badass Users