David Rock: SCARF Model & Your Brain at Work

This was a topic at our recent Innovation Coaches meeting, and I promised I’d post the full resources for those interested in learning and discussing more.

As a summary, Rock is a neuroscientist who offers insights into how functions of the prefrontal cortex and limbic system impact performance. His SCARF Model is a system for both analyzing our responses to threatening social stimuli and developing strategies to working more productively and happier.

A good starting place is Rock’s 2009 talk he gave at Google. It’s 55-minutes long (38 minutes at 1.25x) but loaded with thought provoking information that connects directly to teaching and coaching.

His paper Managing with the Brain in Mind is a shorter summary of the SCARF Model.

Lastly, he also has a book on the topic: The Brain at Work

Feel free to use this thread for reactions, thoughts, and further discussion on the topic.


I’m publicly taking notes here as I watch the video…

1.Rational is overrated (PFC):
Reminds me of these things I’ve encountered before…
Thinking Fast and Slow - takes an effort and the process is serial.
Will power being depletable.
Personally, I’ve wondered a lot about the correlations between anxiety and (un) happiness.

2.We’ve got emotions backwards
Limbic system - towards / away
Bad is so much stronger (deeper, longer-lasting, harder to shift) than good, it’s incredible. No wonder most people are pessimistic about the future.
Your brain needs quiet to solve problems.
Labeling the feeling with words, you give your brain higher capacity.
Re-appraising brain functioning as not being character traits, but just being normal brain functioning.

3.Social needs are primary
Social pain activates the same regions of the brain as physical pain.
Same for social rewards.
(Babies can’t survive on their own. Social dependence is primary.)

Status - “I have some feedback for you” = threat. Tremendous push back if you try to change something about someone.
Relatedness = friend or foe. The default is foe.

These seem somewhat connected to Haidt’s list of 6 things that can guide morality.

Focusing on how what your team is doing makes a positive difference in the world is the plus-side jackpot.Fixing a problem increases certainty, relatedness, fairness, etc.

4.Attention changes the brain (in seconds).
Develop the capacity to control attention. Learning about how the brain works makes it easier to do that. Benefits happen quickly with relatively small time investment.

Asking Dalai Lama “Why are you so happy?” his answer is “Because it feels better.” He is very practiced in reappraising input to look at it more happily / compassionately. You can do this by having a laugh at your situation.

“The neuroscience of mindfulness” - there are two circuits: focusing on direct input as in looking at the data in real time & focusing on the narratives and judgments in your head.

Very interesting. I’d be interested in learning more!

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Interesting, I’m not familiar with these, but I’m inclined to poke about and see what they are now. Thanks.


Also this thread

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Heh, I totally missed that thread! Cool, thank you.

This was pretty interesting. It was hard to watch at a higher speed because I kept thinking about situations with students that some of his conclusions help to explain. This would be great to connect to the trauma informed instruction and SEL concepts. I think there were also similarities here between his conclusions and what the keynote speaker at the beginning of the year (Jeff Duncan-Andrade) shared about stress levels and PTSD.

Taking notes, but not sure what I’ll do with them; maybe test some things out on my kids…

Was this the guy we saw at Creative Oklahoma a few years back?

I’m glad you found it interesting.

I’d like to explore ways to use SCARF and reappraisal/reframing in personal productivity, teacher efficacy, and student learning.

The video is informative and certainly has tons of stuff in it, but it’s not particularly prescriptive on the “how”. His article gets at that a bit more, and I’m hopeful that his book does even more. That said, I think figuring out the “how” will be pretty straightforward for us. The harder part might being modifying or stopping actions where as an organization we create social threat situations in staff and students.

Humm. I didn’t make that connection, and he doesn’t seem to come up in any Google searching for speakers at the conference in 2013. Maybe?

The part of Haidt’s work that I find most immediately helpful is the metaphor of our brains as our emotion mind as a lumbering elephant and our rational mind as the rider that evolved to serve the elephant. This matches well to Rock’s first 2 points - Rational is overrated and we’ve got emotions backwards. Our rider is more like a press secretary or a lawyer working to explain away or justify whatever it is the elephant is doing. We tend to think that we can rational discussion our way to change, but it only works if you’re actually talking to the elephant.

A claim presented in Haidt’s Righteous Mind book (as I understand it) is that change happens when friend elephants/riders (as opposed to “foe”) influence each other. This seems clearly connected to Rock’s #3 - Social needs are primary.

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Yes, that sounds like it’s essentially saying the same sort of thing. Interesting.

Random fact that feels like it’s somehow related to this…

I was listening to a podcast by a Harvard Business School professor on negotiation and she was talking about studies done on people who have lost the function of the limbic system (emotional mind) or the prefrontal cortex (rational mind). Interestingly, people who only can use their prefrontal cortex apparently lack the ability to make decisions. I’m not sure exactly how this connects to the conversation, but I feel like it’s an important clue.

And I’ve added Haidt’s book to my Amazon wish list.

I’m just about done with Rock’s book, Your Brain at Work.

Some initial thoughts…

It’s quite practical and well researched. Where his talk at Google above paints things in broad strokes, this is going over the concepts with a much finer brush. In each “scene” (chapter) he takes you through a scenario where one of the characters misplays a work situation, then he walks through some of the neuroscience that could have helped that person handle the situation differently, and then replays the scene with the neuroscience applied.

The screw-up-then-redo approach to things is a bit dorky at times, but it does help understand how to apply some of the principles and concepts that he’s discussed in the chapter.

Some of the chapters cover familiar ground in familiar ways, but with pretty much every chapter I’m finding little tidbits of ideas on how I might use this knowledge to work and interact differently with others.

In particular, I really like the chapter on helping others to solve problems, where he argues that telling others how to solve problems is less productive than helping others think through the problem so that they can solve it themselves. (Note to self: When we discover time travel, go back to 2005 and tell your parenting self to read this chapter.)

I hope to finish up the last chapter tonight, then I’m going to go through the book and make some notes on things I want to try to apply. I think many of the concepts would be helpful in a coaching culture, but I want to read Cognitive Coaching and compare notes first.