model of social
threats and rewards
We want to feel sure about our rela-
tive importance to others. You don’t have to
be top dog, but you want your place in the
world to be acknowledged and respected.
We want to be able to predict the
We want to have a sense of con-
trol over events.
We want to feel safe with others
– that they are friends rather than enemies.
We want to feel that people act
fairly towards one another, and that the sys-
tem is fair to everyone.
If any of these are
compromised, we feel
deeply threatened and
we have what Dr Rock
calls an “away from
threat” response. This is
also sometimes called
the “fight or flight”
response. Have you ever felt you just want to sit
in your room and see no one? That’s exactly it.
You want to hide, to flee. Or have you felt that
you want to shout and swear at anyone who
comes too close? You want to fight, to attack.
Both reactions happen in response to a per-
On the other hand, if all of the elements in
model are in place, we have a
why do we
feel the way
Everything was new to me and it was
hard for me. I did not have any friends
so I used to hide in the ladies’ room
until my next class. I hardly heard the
teachers … because they were so fast.
Things got even worse when I was
introduced to the computer. I felt like
being at university at my age was a
(first-year Engineering student,
University of KwaZulu-Natal).
Dr David Rock, director of the NeuroLeader-
ship Institute in New York, has come up with
a model to help us understand our emotions,
which is the beginning of being able to cope
Firstly, he says, the brain reacts to social
threats or rewards with the same intensity as it
reacts to physical threats or rewards. In other
words, your brain does not distinguish between
someone threatening you with a knife, and
someone insulting and disrespecting you in
front of your friends or classmates. The chemi-
cal reaction is the same – and you may feel
equally paralysed and helpless in both cases.
Secondly, if you feel threatened, your abilities
to make decisions, solve problems and work
with others suffer. If you feel good, as if you have
been rewarded, all these abilities are enhanced.
With that in mind, Dr Rock has developed
the following model for what it is that we hu-
man beings want: