Image by Siora Photography via https://unsplash.com/
By Kelly Beischel PhD, RN, CAPP, APPC
It was a few weeks after George Floyd’s death.
I was spent. Trying to find energy where there was none.
I needed a break. A break from writing. A break from reading. A break from my computer.
So I pulled out my stand-up paddleboard.
I felt my energy rise and my mind ease with each stroke of the paddle.
As I was paddling though, I noticed that three boats and two homes in the cove were sporting political flags – political flags with whom I do not share the same ideology.
Unease rose quickly in my body.
I turned around and paddled furiously back to our dock where I promptly turned our flag upside down. I wanted to make a point, dammit. Our country was in distress.
I stomped up to my house – in dismay, anger, and fear as well as an “I’ll show them” type of satisfaction. I totally get that this was a toddlerish move but it’s where my survival brain was at the moment.
My thinking brain was off the rails.
Over the next few days, I spent much time in deep reflection about why people might be digging their heels in on their side of the fence concerning racial inequity, politics, coronavirus, protesting, riots, looting, and police brutality.
I knew I needed to turn around my thinking because every time I looked down at our dock and saw the flag flying upside down my threat response kicked in. And I knew that it was affecting me more than anyone flying flags.
So I used the SCARF model to understand why people (including me) might be digging their heels in.
Social cognitive neuroscience teaches us that the motivating driver of social behavior arises from our brain’s attempt to minimize threats and maximize rewards.
Our brain is constantly scanning for threats and rewards widely known as the avoid-approach response. An avoid (threat) response is evoked when the brain senses danger. Likewise, when the brain senses a reward, an approach response is evoked.
What is the SCARF model?
The SCARF model captures five common elements that activate a threat or reward response in social situations.
The goal of using the SCARF model is to minimize the threat response and maximize positive engaged states of mind to enhance collaboration with others.
The five factors include: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.
Status is related to our relative importance to others. It’s often seen as ‘pecking order’ or seniority. If the brain senses a reduction in status, real or imagined, a strong threat response is activated. Interestingly, brain studies show that the same brain region that registers physical pain lights up when we are left out of an activity that’s perceived as a drop in status.
Certainty allows us to predict the near future. Our brains love patterns. And with consistent patterns come predictions. Predictions such as when I push the coffee maker’s on-button coffee will flow from the machine. I have done this enough for my brain to recognize the pattern and predict the outcome, coffee in my cup. On the other hand, uncertainty activates an error response in the orbital frontal cortex. Think of the error response like a flashing red light or a beeping noise coming from your coffeemaker because you didn’t fill it with water or it isn’t aligned properly. There is an interruption in the pattern and prediction. Thus, you cannot simply ignore the error if you want that cup of coffee. In other words, uncertainty becomes a threat. (Something we can all relate to during this pandemic, right?)
Autonomy is the perception of having choices and the ability to control one’s environment. When we perceive we have choices and control over the stressor, our ability to function increases. Likewise, the perception of decreased control and choices leads to the destruction of functioning behavior. We get stuck and can’t move forward because our higher thinking brain goes offline and we operate from the survival brain.
Relatedness involves a sense of being in or out of a social group. Humans have, since the beginning of time, formed ‘tribes’ to gain a sense of belonging. Research indicates that safe human interaction is a primary driver, similar to the need for food. And that the lack of safe social interactions activates a threat response. The brain decides quickly whether a person is a friend or foe and this impacts brain functioning so much that when we receive information from people ‘like us’ – the brain uses the same circuitry as it does when thinking one’s own thoughts.
Fairness is the perception that a situation is equitable between people. Perceived inequity or unfairness in things like hiring practices, a raise, promotion, or workload can trigger a threat response. Research indicates that males actually experience a decreased empathic response when a person they perceive as being unfair experiences pain.
Through my reflection, I gained insight into what was driving my threat responses as well as my vacillation between rage and a frozen state of inaction – neither of which were helping the circumstances or changing anyone’s mind.
From Threat to Compassion
Using this model helped me move from anger to compassion for those with whom I disagreed, as well as for myself.
This in no way means that I agree with their ideology. You see, we don’t have to agree with a person to feel compassion toward them.
But, given what social cognitive neuroscience tells us about the brain’s avoid (threat) and approach (reward), and using the SCARF model to understand the social behavior of those around us, it makes sense why people are digging their heels into their ideology.
I’ve learned over time that offering compassion to myself and others calms my brain and my body.
It brings me out of a hyperaroused state where I can’t think clearly. And like Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama tells us, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
How did I cultivate compassion?
After my reflection using the SCARF model, after I understood why I might disagree with them and they with me, I hopped on my stand-up paddleboard again and paddled to the cove.
I paddled past their homes and boats whispering a compassion meditation I’ve come to love:
Just like me, this person wants to matter.
Just like me, this person wants life to be normal again.
Just like me, this person feels pain when they are left out.
Just like me, this person has suffered.
Just like me, this person is uncertain of the future.
Just like me, this person sees me as a threat to their sense of control.
Just like me, this person has felt unloved.
Just like me, this person wants choices.
Just like me, this person wants to belong.
Just like me, this person looks for safe social connections.
Just like me, this person feels threatened by what they don’t understand.
Just like me, this person feels things aren’t fair.
With each whisper, I felt my body calm and my mind clear.
I paddled home and turned my flag right side up.
From Threat to Compassion to Moving Forward
Working from a place of compassion rather than rage offered me the headspace I needed to gain clarity, optimism, and energy. And gaining more clarity, optimism, and energy enabled my thinking brain to jump back on track.
In turn, I was able to move forward to create a list of anti-racist action steps to take.
And then I got to work on taking those action steps.
My heart was fuller. My light, brighter.
And this, my friend, is the place from which I operate best.
When you want to influence behavior – yours or someone else’s – try using the SCARF model to minimize the threat response and maximize rewards.
And the next time you see others as different from yourself or when you put others above or below you, try using the “Just like me…” compassion meditation.
This is where you’ll restore your inner peace – the peace from where you can take positive, forward-moving action.
Caring about you,
Scarf Image above by Siora Photography via https://unsplash.com/