October 2015

Social neuroscience – the brains behind positive safety culture

  • By Vanessa Elliott, Managing Director, Soteris, Australia; member, Australian Psychological Society

Examining the relationship between social neuroscience and safety outcomes

Safety performance and worker safety remains a critical concern for organisations. The cost of safety incidents extends well beyond the financial, and includes less readily quantifiable costs such as organisational (eg worker’s compensation premiums, legal costs, fines, damaged reputation, turnover, presenteeism, recruiting and training), individual (eg reduced quality of life, mental health, degraded relationships), and social (eg reliance on community support and rehabilitation services). Given the human and organisational impacts involved in safety incidents, effective safety and risk interventions remain imperative.

In recent times, there has been a shift toward applying neuroscientific (or neuropsychological) principles to safety management. The field of neuroscience is interested in understanding how the brain develops and how these developments influence our behaviour. Using neuroimaging techniques, we now have greater capacity to make more accurate inferences that what is going on inside the brain is correlated with, or causal to, observable behaviour (Pillay, 2011). The relevance to the field of safety is that if we understand how the brain influences our actions, then, according to Craver (2007) we have the power to influence or change behavioural outcomes to produce lower risk choices and actions.

Extrapolating this to a safety environment, the more we understand about the human brain the better we are able to tailor safety strategies to overcome barriers to safety performance. Ignoring the role of the brain in determining safety behaviours can be a powerful safety culture carcinogen that eats away at safety performance.

Of all the domains of neuroscience, arguably the most relevant to safety management is social cognitive neuroscience. Social cognitive neuroscience is concerned with the brain’s role in social and emotional aspects of human cognition and behaviour – that is, how we relate to each other and how this influences our behaviour. Research shows that factors such as social exclusion and change can increase negative emotional states. Complexity Management Theory (CMT) and Relationship Psychology (RP) postulates that people’s interactions and relationships with others, as well as other core social needs, are strong predictors of safety behaviour (Carillo, 2012). These can adversely impact decision-making, risk-taking, judgement and attention (Adolphs, 2003; Carillo, 2012). To feel part of a group (ie social inclusion) enhances dopamine (the feel-good chemical) in the brain, which triggers positive emotions that in turn enables better cognitive processing (Rock, 2009).


Emotion is critical to understanding behaviour, because it predominantly initiates behaviour. The feeling part of the brain (ie the limbic system, see Figure 1) kicks in before the thinking part (ie the neocortex) of the brain. The limbic system is a primitive system that is activated at a non- or subconscious level, while the neocortex allows more conscious awareness and active decision-making. Our brains are set up in such a way that we are able to process emotional responses without having to draw on thought processing and consider them rationally. This is what makes our brains efficient and able to process multiple things at once. However, in negative or uncomfortable emotional states (eg stress, anger, fear) the survival part of the brain kicks in, activating the fight or flight response, and we can act in less than rational or desirable ways (Daalmans, 2013). On the other hand, in more positive emotional states (eg relaxed, calm, happy), we are  able to tap into the thinking part of our brain and make more rational and conscious decisions for behaviour.

Brain science behind behaviour – the SCARF model

The field of social neuroscience is extensive. David Rock (2008, 2009), a thought-leader in the field, has consolidated the research into a useful and practical framework for understanding the core social domains that influence human behaviour and interactions with others. This framework can be applied across a broad spectrum of organisational contexts such as leadership, culture and safety management. His model is known as SCARF and relates to five key domains – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. His model is based on two themes from social neuroscience:

  • our behaviour and social interaction is governed by the need to minimise threat and maximise reward.
  • social needs are treated (by the brain) in much the same way as that of core basic survival needs, such as breathing, eating, drinking and sleeping.

Rock’s (2008, 2009) SCARF model is particularly useful in the field of safety risk science, in that it helps organisations and safety culture facilitators to better understand what motivates people toward or away from choices and behaviours that impact safety performance – the key choices and actions that determine whether or not they make it home from work each and every day unscathed. It also establishes a viable framework for understanding key social interactions necessary for developing a strong positive safety culture (PSC).

The type of emotional reaction (whether neutral, positive or negative) to stimulus determines the specific activity in the limbic system and the resultant behaviour (Davidson and Begley, 2012; Phelps, 2006). Negative (or uncomfortable) emotions are warning signals that one is at risk in some way and activates a range of physiological reactions (eg increased heart rate, shallow breathing) and an avoidance (flight) response. In extremely stressful situations, the brain is hardwired to place a higher priority on these negative emotions and to remain constantly vigilant of risk (Pillay, 2011).

In a social context, being ostracised by our colleagues or losing our position or status in the group elevates adrenaline and cortisol excretion (the feel bad chemicals) and triggers an avoidance response. Such vigilance taxes mental functioning and can have profound effects on our capabilities and behaviour. In a heightened state of negative emotion, our attention is diverted to dealing with imminent risk, adversely impacting information processing, judgement, attention, memory, decision-making, risk-taking and engagement (Arnsten, 1998; Beer, 2007; Damasio, 1995; Lupien et al, 2009; Rock, 2009).

Positive emotional states, on the other hand, activate an approach response. In a state of positive emotion, the brain’s processing is freed up allowing for greater access to resources related to thinking, enhanced attention, openness in thinking, greater insight into alternative options/perspectives, fewer perceptual errors, and better judgement, decision-making and action (Pillay, 2011; Rock, 2009). The benefit of this is that people are in a better state for more rational, considered decision-making relating to risk and safety behaviour.

The five SCARF domains

SCARF is a model established on extensive research in social neuroscience that concentrates on identifying the core social domains that drive human behaviour. These five domains activate the primary threat or reward neuronal connections between the different functional components of our brains. The higher each domain is for individuals, the more likely an approach response will be activated; the lower the domains are, the more likely an avoid response will be initiated. It is important to note that not every domain needs to be high for every person as this may be an unattainable goal. For instance, high levels of relatedness, fairness and certainty may provide a sufficient reward response to mitigate the threat response of lower levels of status and autonomy. An outline of the five domains is provided in Table 1.


Wrapping a SCARF around positive safety culture

Now that we understand what influences our behaviour toward or away from something in our environment, we are in a better position to create work environments for workers that foster positive emotional states and more optimal cognitive functioning. Organisations can integrate the principles of SCARF into established safety culture and management programs, and can engender a willingness of their people to work collaboratively to generate a PSC.

The safety culture approach to safety management accentuates the role that social forces play within an organisation. PSC is in evidence when people question old assumptions and safety methods, and share a personal commitment, responsibility and drive toward safety (Heese, 2012; Horrigan, 2014). If  workers see that the organisation, its leaders or their peers do not really care about safety, then, according to principles of social neuroscience, they will follow suit to avoid threat. Most people will not risk exclusion from the group to lead the safety battle alone when it is more emotionally comfortable and psychologically safer to follow the group and retain in-group status. Conversely, modelling appropriate safety intentions and behaviours will maximise the likelihood of your people mirroring these behaviours (Daalmans, 2013). Researchers have found that when people observe the actions of others, their brains unconsciously mimic their emotions, intentions and behaviours as if they were their own so long as there is consistency between intentions and behaviour (Daalmans, 2013; Gazzola, Aziz-Zadeh and Keysers, 2006). Mirroring processes serve to enhance relatedness (as per Rock’s model), and in turn disseminate desirable safety intentions and behaviours, while eliminating or defusing more destructive patterns that erode safety culture and performance.

If you want to enhance or change the safety culture of your organisation, attending to those factors intrinsic to maximising reward while minimising threat across the five SCARF domains is critical to embedding and sustaining a PSC. Everyone in the organisation develops a vested interest in safety and is personally motivated to maintain the safety of self and others. To improve safety outcomes, organisations, leaders and individuals need to actively facilitate positive work and team relationships, and environments that maximise reward and minimise threat. Doing so will provide a strong foundation for developing and sustaining a PSC.

Of course, leading the safety culture challenge is not for organisations and leaders alone. As an organisation, leader and individual, think about small (or large) steps that you could take toward maximising reward across these five social domains, and discourage actions that prompt a threat response in others in order to encourage an atmosphere conducive to a strong PSC. To provide a guide to implementing SCARF into your existing safety programs, a list of examples of high and low SCARF and remedial actions is available at www.soteris.com.au/resources.


The author acknowledges the assistance of Ken Whiting, Dr Leonie Horrigan and Mr Jim Whiting from Soteris in preparing this article. 


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