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5 Social Stimuli to Help You Navigate Fear.

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

by Thandie Balfour

Advances in Neuroscience have identified that fear based on physical stimuli (such as a snake) lights up the same spot in the brain as that based on social stimuli (like rejection). This means that the brain does not distinguish between physical stimuli and social stimuli when experiencing fear. Furthermore whether it is a snake or rejection, the same stress hormones are released.

We also know that the brain constantly scans for potential stimuli both fear and pleasure, and these are experienced as threats if it’s a fear stimulus and reward if it is a pleasure stimulus. The brain however tends to scan more for threats than for rewards. This is due to human beings' long-established primal need for survival, whether it was a need to survive harmful animals or dangerous neighbours. We still have that need and the accompanying fears with us even in the more sophisticated times we live in.

This understanding goes a long way in explaining why people react the way they do social situations. It means that the mind is more alert to and reacts more to those situations which trigger fear, stress and anxiety than those which trigger joy and pleasure. And that the primary need of the brain is to find situations which minimise threats and/or maximise rewards.

David Rock (founder of the Neuro Leadership Institute) in his paper 2008 paper titled SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others identifies 5 social stimuli which can trigger either threat or pleasure responses.

The 5 social stimuli (SCARF) are:


This refers to our perception of our own importance/significance relative to others. t is our sense of whether we are respected and valued. We are constantly evaluating our standing in relation to others in any social setting. Examples of situations that could lead to a reduction in status could be loss of job or income while an increase in status could be achieved by completing a task or acquiring a new skill.


This is our ability to predict what lies ahead and certainty that we will not be caught off guard when events occur. There are events and activities that the mind expects to be done the same way as before and so does not spend too much energy on them. Walking and talking is so automatic that we do not think much about the process unless we are physically ill. The same applies to social processes such as engaging in conversation with a loved one, the brain is generally certain that this would be a rewarding situation and goes into it with ease. Operating in familiar and certain circumstances frees more resources in the brain for other tasks which may require more focus. Once uncertainty is experienced, in what should be familiar situations, then the brain goes into threat mode and stress hormones get released.


This refers to a sense of control over ourselves and our own environment and the ability to make own choices. Human beings, irrespective of age, require a sense of control over their environment, activities, and outcomes. We may not control everything in our environment but a perception of control of some aspects and knowing that we have choices goes a long way in creating ease.


This is a sense of connectedness, belonging and social safety. As human beings we are social beings and have a need to feel part of the social spaces we occupy. Our ability to feel trust and empathy for others is strongly influenced by whether they are perceived to be part of the same social group. Once the brain senses a social connection it releases happy hormones such as oxytocin which tell the brain that this is a reward situation.


This refers to the perception of fair exchanges between people, i.e. the same rules apply to everyone and everyone has equal access to opportunities. When the brain perceives a situation to be unfair it goes into threat mode and becomes defensive. In such situations what the brain needs is transparency on how certain decisions were made so as to understand why there was a need for different rules to apply. For example, an employee may perceive it as unfair that a colleague received a higher increase than they did until they understand the reasons for the differences in increases.

Looking at the social dimension above one can start identifying their current triggers by asking the following questions:

  • Which of the SCARF© dimensions is showing up in the most threat state currently?

  • Which of the SCARF© dimensions is showing up in the most reward state currently?

  • How are you likely triggering others?

For a detailed assessment and professional report, one can complete an online assessment on the link below in order to determine their sensitivity to the dimensions ranging from the strongest driver to lowest.

It is important to not downplay the social threats we experience but to treat them with the same sense of urgency as treat physical threats because in the brain it does not matter whether it is social or physical, a threat is a threat.


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