Nerd Tools

The Power of SCARF

This is a great tool for understanding your own drivers and those of other people.

It is from David Rock’s book Your Brain at Work and it is based on scientific studies of the brain and up to date psychological theory. Most importantly, it makes sense when you read and apply it to yourself and the people around you.

I’m paraphrasing here, but the basic idea is that there are 5 factors which, to a greater or lesser extent, can make your day or ruin your life depending on their importance to you. Essentially each individual is influenced differently by these factors.

This means that any given event or situation could be a positive or negative experience depending on how the 5 factors are affected and their importance to the person in question.

The five factors are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. The first letter of each spelling out the word SCARF.

More on the 5 Factors


This refers to the symbols that are internally important to you as an individual. Not just status symbols such as a fast car or an expensive new watch, but the values and beliefs that you have about yourself.

For example two words that I use to describe myself: British and Nerdy; are also two beliefs that I have about myself. I believe that I’m both British and Nerdy. If something was to happen that questioned my Britishness or my Nerdiness, it would have the potential to affect my status and potentially cause me to have a negative reaction. Conversely, if a situation reinforced this belief about myself, it is likely to cause me to have a positive reaction.


This refers to the level of certainty a person may have in any given situation. Where certainty could provide a positive or negative reaction depending on the person in question. The level of that positive or negative reaction depends on how important certainty is to them. One person may require a very structured and rigid lifestyle, or a high degree of certainty in order to feel secure. While another may find that level of certainty too stifling and experience a negative reaction.

If an employer announced that there would be a round of redundancies this could reduce an employee’s level of certainty regarding their future employment and the resulting effects this could have on their life. Alternatively, a different employee could find the experience positive as it’s an opportunity to compete with the colleagues, or to change employer or to take a career break.


This refers to the level of decision making clout a person may have. Where varying levels of it could provide a positive or negative reaction depending on whether a person likes to have greater or lesser decision making control.

One person may feel a greater positive from being in a position of power, making decisions and enforcing their will, while another person may be stressed by that kind of control and feel much more secure when being told what to do.


This is the amount of interaction a person has with the people around them. Some people find large social interactions difficult and stressful, preferring a small close knit group of friends or time alone while others require a very active social life with different people in different places to have the same positive feeling. Some people work more effectively in groups while others function better alone.

Personally I know that in order to function effectively and have a positive mental state, I need regular social interactions with friends. Without this I feel lonely and negative which can have knock on effects in other aspects of my life. That’s a pretty average behaviour, nothing particularly special. However, the level and content of the social interactions I need will be different to everyone else. Yours will be different too.


This is a concept most people will be very aware of. We all have our own in built balance of what is fair. The challenge is that everyone else also has their own interpretation of what fair is too. The differences between those perspectives is where difficulties can arrive. Some people are outraged when they feel that they themselves or other people are being treated unfairly. Other people are less influenced by fairness and will take an advantage if they perceive one.

The Importance of the 5 Factors to You and Others

Stimuli from the outside world can affect a person’s Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness or Fairness resulting in a positive or negative reaction. If these factors are reinforced and supported a person will experience a positive reaction, while if they’re attacked or reduced a person will experience a negative reaction.

You can use this knowledge in your daily interactions to support yourself and the people around you.

Your Own Triggers

Think about yourself first, try to identify how important the 5 SCARF factors are to you and in what way they are important. Think back to past experiences where you had strong positive or negative reactions to something, I’m willing to bet that one or more of the 5 factors was affected in some way.

If you can figure yourself out, what makes you tick and what grinds your gears in terms of these 5 factors, you’re one step ahead of the game. Not only will you have a better understanding of your own feelings and responses to stimuli, you’ll also be able to communicate your drivers to those you care about ahead of time.

Sharing your preferences at a good time means that others will be better equipped to interact with you effectively in a bad time.

The Triggers of Others

In the same way as above, when you share your own triggers, you can also ask and talk about the triggers of others in order to improve your interactions with them.

If you don’t know people well enough to ask this type of question you can still get a strong understanding of people by observing them over time. Some people need to have regular social interactions while others need to be decision makers or find security and pride in a job title or their position on a sports team. None of it is wrong, none of it is right. It’s just people being different, unique and special.

By improving your understanding of others, you’ll be able to interact with them more effectively. Not manipulating, but generally appreciating that everyone is unique and has preferences in terms of how they like to be treated.

The Power is in Your Hands

There you have a quick run through the SCARF model from David Rock’s Your Brain at Work.

It’s an incredibly interesting and powerful tool that you can really see the results on. I wish you good luck with it!

A Quick Summary

  • The reinforcement or degradation of 5 key factors in any situation cause people to have a positive or negative reaction – The importance of these factors is unique to everyone
  • The 5 factors are: Status – Certainty – Autonomy – Relatedness – Fairness
  • Understanding the importance of each factor to you can help you manage your own reactions to external stimuli
  • Understanding the importance of each factor to others can help you improve your interactions with the people in your life

3 thoughts on “The Power of SCARF”

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