Workplace Health and Safety

Using neuroscience and behavioural science to influence safety

neuroscience and safety

Neuroscience and understanding how brain development influences behaviour patterns and decision making processes is playing an increasing role in safety management.

According to Vanessa Elliot, psychologist and former managing director of safety psychology specialists, Soteris, if we understand how the brain influences our actions then we can lead people to lower risk actions.

Writing in 2015 for AusIMM Bulletin, Elliot said that social cognitive neuroscience is particularly relevant to safety – that being “how we relate to each other and how this influences our behavior”.

Elliot cites research that suggests people’s relationships and core social needs are strong predictors of safety behaviour and can impact decision-making, risk-taking, judgement and attention.

This is largely because emotion is a predominant driver of behaviour. When we are in a positive emotional state, we are better able to process information and consciously make more rational and safer decisions, she says, citing the SCARF model.

She says the model can be used to established management programs to help generate a positive safety culture (PSC).

The SCARF Model

Created by David Rock in 2008, The SCARF Model summarises two of neuroscience’s key themes:

  • Social behavior is driven and governed by an overarching principle of minimising threat and maximizing reward
  • Social needs are treated by the brain in much the same way as the need for food and water

The SCARF model involves five domains of human social experience – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness – that can activate a reward or threat response in social situations.

“The model enables people to more easily remember, recognise, and potentially modify the core social domains that drive human behaviour,” according to Rock describing his model in an article for the NeuroLeadershipjournal.



Our relative importance, seniority or place in the pecking order.

Rock cites research that says status is: “The most significant determinant of human longevity and health, even when controlling for education and income.”

A perceived threat of status loss will light up the same regions of the brain as physical pain. A perception of equality will generate a positive emotional response.



The brain is constantly trying to predict the near future, and so craves certainty, to enable that prediction.

Without certainty the brain must work far harder, diverting attention away from information processing functions.



There is a link between feeling in control and health outcomes whereas a reduction of autonomy – such as a feeling of being micro managed – can generate a strong threat response.



Relatedness is our sense of belonging with others and a reduction in relatedness “significantly impacts safety culture” by undermining the sense of team, according to Elliot.

Furthermore, a threat of isolation “can encourage people to engage in behaviours to retain their position in the group” – which Elliot says is particularly relevant to safety culture.

“Most people will not risk exclusion from the group to lead the safety battle alone.” 



The importance of fairness is evident is a study cited by Rock which found that someone who receives 50 cents out of a dollar feels more rewarded than if they receive 10 dollars out of 50.

Furthermore, unfair exchanges generate a strong threat response.

Increased transparency and communication along with setting clear expectations will help.


Elliot says that attending to factors across the five SCARF domains – maximising reward and minimising threat – will improve an organisation’s safety culture.

“To improve safety outcomes, organisations, leaders and individuals need to actively facilitate positive work and team relationships, and environments,” she says.

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