How Poverty Messes Up Babies’ Brains

How Poverty Messes Up Babies’ Brains

The Dramatic Impact of Poverty in Newborns Brains

​Reading time: about 5 minutes

baby brain

So, does being poor impact your brain, or are people with decreased cognitive ability poor?

Some people may have strong opinions on the above question. Probably broadly along political partisan lines. But the best place to answer this question is with research and science and the answer is coming firmly down on the side of, poverty disrupts you brain. If I were being dramatic, I might say it “wreaks havoc” “destroys” or some other emotional descriptions. They might actually be very good descriptions.

But how?

First, let’s review some recent research out which is really interesting because it scanned newborn babies brains while they were sleeping. This is really important because it showed that this life disadvantage is there right from day one. That is very worrying.

The researchers at Washington University School of Medicine analysed a sample of 399 mothers and their babies. 280 of these were at a social disadvantage - scientific language for being poor. And these newborns showed significant differences to their brain to babies born to mothers in better social conditions.

The scans showed

  • Less cortical gay matter  -  cortical gray matter is the outer layer of the brain considered our higher functional area of the brain (but involved in a lot including sensory processing). The gray matter is the area that houses your neurons, brain cells.
  • Less sub-cortical gray matter  –  subcortical gray matter refers to regions that sit in the internal regions of the brain which are often important for emotional functions but also memory and general functional processing. As I said gray matter houses your neurons, brain cells
  • Less white matter –   white matter refers to the mass of connections between brain regions. So, this suggests less connections between all brain regions or less efficient connections.
  • Fewer and shallower folds in the brain. The folds in the brain give it that brain wrinkly look and allows the brain to have more surface area but are also signs of a mature or more functional brain.

This is quite dramatic  –  though the absolute differences may not be large, it all points to a less developed, or functional brain, at all levels. This was simply comparing two groups of newborns shortly after birth. This means these babies are at a disadvantage right from the outset - even before anything else happens these kids are starting at -1.

This is worrying and another study from the same dataset asked another question.

How does crime exposure affect newborns’ brains?

For this study they analysed what neighbourhoods these pregnant women lived in and hence their potential exposure to property or violent crime. And the results again are worrying. But the results were different: in the aforementioned study the results seemed to impact the whole brain and not specific regions of but in this study various functional networks were affected.

brain scans

A number of networks were affected but the most relevant is that of the thalamus-amygdala-hippocampus network. Which may sound like gobbledygook to you. But this is a network that connects sensory information to emotional responses to memory functions. So, in short disrupted emotional and memory networks.

The same applies as to the previously mentioned study. This was in newborns with just the mothers living in higher crime neighbourhoods  –  just this was enough to see a significant difference in these newborn babies’ brains.

So, those kids born in poverty with these mothers being exposed to crime during pregnancy seem to be starting life at -2. Decreased brain maturity and disrupted emotional and memory networks. Not good, very bad indeed.

It is also really important to note that we haven’t even begun to speak about developmental factors and how these brains can and do develop in socially deprived environments, nor have we spoken about epigenetics, such as how stress can pass an gene activation patterns to offspring.

This also shows that breaking out of this cycle requires more than just proclaiming that people need to make the good choices in life. Of course, they do, but starting out with a brain that is already less developed and with disrupted networks is only likely to perpetuate this poverty cycle.

What about brain development?

We do know, of course, that there are many developmental factors that can and do contribute to brain development of children in positive ways. In this article here I outline the ground-breaking research that showed that care for children could massively boost IQ.

The Abecedarian Project in the USA showed that pre-school education could leave traces in the brain that could be seen 50 years later. Similarly, breast feeding has been shown to improve the brain health of children and also of mothers  –  and, again, this can be seen decades later in the brain. In addition, exercise and movement improves children’s brain signatures  –  with exercise in pre-teen years leaving a signature on the brain also observable many years later.

That is all good but what the observant amongst you will notice is these are also often related to social standing.

Pre schooling  -  particularly high quality pre schooling is basically only available for those who can afford it or live in the right neighbourhoods. High quality nutrition also.

Breastfeeding may seem like a cheap option to help with your kids’ brain development, but this necessitates actually being able to breastfeed with your children, the mother having the right nutrition, and being able to do this. If a mother is living in poverty and trying to hold down two jobs to feed herself and her children, this may be out of the question. And often is.

Similarly, taking part in structured sporting activities is something that comes with social settings  -  but it is something that could be a cost-effective intervention for many children.

A just society?

So, if we do want a society that can grow and flourish, if we want a just society, if we want a good society, we should pay close attention to this.

Development of children’s brains happens before they are born - interventions that help pregnant mothers, particularly those who are impoverished, will have a significant benefit on those babies’ brains. Similarly investing in interventions pre-school also.

The worrying take-away, and important message, is that poverty really does mess with your brain. It does this as an adult but more importantly, as I have just outlined, based on scientific evidence, it messes with your brain right from the outset  -  from before you are born.

This also massively raises the importance of investing in and enabling interventions at this stage  – guided by science rather than political opinions.

After all who wouldn’t want a society with better brains. I do

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

twitter / LinkedIn


Regina L. Triplett, Rachel E. Lean, Amisha Parikh, J. Philip Miller, Dimitrios Alexopoulos, Sydney Kaplan, Dominique Meyer, Christopher Adamson, Tara A. Smyser, Cynthia E. Rogers, Deanna M. Barch, Barbara Warner, Joan L. Luby, Christopher D. Smyser.
Association of Prenatal Exposure to Early-Life Adversity With Neonatal Brain Volumes at Birth. 
JAMA Network Open, 2022; 5 (4): e227045
DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.7045

Rebecca G. Brady, Cynthia E. Rogers, Trinidi Prochaska, Sydney Kaplan, Rachel E. Lean, Tara A. Smyser, Joshua S. Shimony, George M. Slavich, Barbara B. Warner, Deanna M. Barch, Joan L. Luby, Christopher D. Smyser.
The Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Neighborhood Crime on Neonatal Functional Connectivity. 
Biological Psychiatry, 2022
DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2022.01.020

More Healthy and Society Brains articles

Eat Less to Live Longer

Eat Less to Live Longer

When we talk of healthy brains we automatically think of things like exercise and nutrition that I have covered at times here. But the thing we put into the brain most is oxygen. So, let’s have a quick look at how the air we breathe impacts brain performance.

Two Hopeless Little Girls Abandoned to a Mental Institution — With Astounding Results

Two Hopeless Little Girls Abandoned to a Mental Institution — With Astounding Results

An Astounding and Underated Story of Brain Development

​Reading time: about 7 minutes

orphan brain development

The story goes that Harold M. Skeels, on taking over responsibility for the Iowa state psychiatric institutions in 1938, walked into the Iowa State orphanage which was situated within a complex including wards for the mentally retarded and sick, and saw two little girls sitting on the floor whining and crying and rocking back and forth.

He described them as such:

The youngsters were pitiful little creatures. They were tearful, had runny noses, and coarse, stringy, and colorless hair; they were emaciated, undersized, and lacked muscle tone or responsiveness. Sad and inactive, the two spent their days rocking and whining”

This was back in 1938 and these institutions are what would be unthinkable today. This was one large ward with dozens children in it and only two nurses to look after them. One of the key roles of the orphanage was also to find or match children to potential adoptive parents. However, under state law those considered retarded couldn’t be put up for adoption. These two girls, as you can see from the outline above were considered retarded with estimated IQs of between 35 and 46 (100 being the norm).

A Harsh Decision

With no beds free and children to be admitted, Skeels made what sounds like a harsh decision. Skeels was not a bad man, on the contrary, he was a very good man, but he did need space to look after more children. He therefore made the decision to have these two unresponsive retarded girls moved to a ward for women who were themselves considered retarded or mentally sick. A side note is that in this dark chapter of US history many things could lead to women being considered “feeble of mind”.

So, these two girls transferred, their needs would be taken care of. They had warmth, protection, shelter, and nutrition. He left to tour and attend to other businesses in other locations. He returned three months later.

On his return he went to the ward to check up on these two girls. What he found was astounding — and also went against all beliefs held at the time: what it took to bring up children, who could do this, and whether you were born with intelligence, or born an imbecile.

The Transformation

On entering the ward he was met with two unrecognisable little girls. The girls were little bundles of energy and activity. Full of life and responsive to those around them. A transformation so complete he at first did not believe these were the same girls. They were.

This went against everything everyone assumed at the time. You were born with a good mind or bad. You were retarded or you weren’t. If you were mentally ill, or retarded, there is not way possible that you could be a good mother. Yet, here he had evidence to the contrary — two little retarded girls had over period of only three months been transformed.

He measured their IQs and they came in at 77 and 87, no longer considered retarded. This was measured again a few months later and IQ scores for both girls were now mid 90s close to the norm.

How Could This Happen?

This was the question he asked himself, and then asked the nurses, and the women on the ward, but also observed them over the next few months.

What had happened is that these children were met with warmth, love, and heaps of attention. This was also the best thing to happen to the nurses on the ward and the women in the ward. What happened is one of the women become a main motherly figure and the other women become doting and loving aunts.

They stimulated them, played with them, comforted them, catered to their needs, made them toys, knitted them clothes. These girls had moved from a large ward with no attention to an environment full of love, attention, and stimulation. And it is this that led these girls within a short period of time to blossom.

It showed a number of important things. First, IQ, particularly in younger years, is not static but is as much as an environmental factor as genetic factor. Second, that to be a good parent you just needed love and the ability to care and give children the attention they need.

But was this really the case? To prove it Skeels set up an experiment that would be unthinkable today.

The Experiment

Based on this extraordinary experience, and full of excitement Skeels and a colleague, Dye, made a request to the authorities to run an experiment. In this they planned to place children in the mental health ward, and then follow their progress in contrast to another group kept in the orphanage.

They selected 13 one to two-year olds 11 of whom were classed as retarded (average IQ 67) and so unsuitable for adoption. These were now placed with teenage girls with mental retardation who lived at the institution. However, in contrast to the first girls, these young women were taught and guided in how to give basic care and attention to these young children. In addition the young children also attended a half morning kindergarten programme at the institution.

12 children were selected for the contrast group. These were kept at the orphanage as normal. Their IQs averaged 87 and only two were classed as mentally retarded.

What Happened?

After two years all the children were tested again — with astounding results.

Thos children who had been assigned to “mothers” showed an average improvement of IQ score of 27.5 points. This was enough for 11 of the 13 to become eligible for adoption. This was an amazing result in itself but even more so when contrasted to the “control” group — those who had stayed in the orphanage.

Those who had stayed in the orphanage showed an average decrease of 26 IQ points. They hence moved from hovering around below average IQ to mentally retarded.

This is in itself a fascinating and powerful piece of evidence. But it becomes even more powerful because 25 years later Skeels then managed to track down the majority of the children to gauge how well they had fared in life.

From Retardation to Contributing to Society

Form the 13 children in the experimental group 11 had married and this led to 9 children, all of normal intelligence it should be noted. The median educational level was 12th grade and four had attended college. The jobs ranged from homemaker to business and professional work with only those two who had not been adopted working in domestic services.

In contrast those 12 children who had remained in the orphanage for the study fared much less positively. The median level of education was only the third grade. Four were still institutionalised, and the others all worked in unskilled jobs (except one).

What has Changed?

Skeels noted in his follow up study that if his work could just stimulate some change or further research his work had been a success. He noted the obvious that there is potential in many children that cannot be unlocked because of the condition and environments they are in.

His work did indeed contribute to the changes in the orphanages and so was a resounding success. What is also forgotten is that because of prevailing opinions at the time his work was attacked viciously by many within and without the academic community. It takes a lot to change entrenched opinions.

There have been multiple other studies — of note are the orphanage studies which came about after the collapse of the Ceaușescu regime in Romania and children we found in dire conditions in dozens of orphanages. The result echoed those of Skeels study. Give the children good homes and their intelligence and behaviour rockets. However, this did depend on age and how long they had been institutionalised.

Remaining Persistent Opinions

I use the Skeels case in my talks on the brain and how this illustrates the plasticity of the brain — how the brain can and does change. But also how it clearly shows that human needs are critical to healthy development — our SCOAP model.

And though there is now also plenty of research into the brain science of what happens and how connections between brain cells can be destroyed with adversity in early childhood, it still feels like society doesn’t fully appreciate the value of enabling all young children to have access to education, stimulation, but also love and care.

We still seem to blame the mother or the person. The “they are born that way” mantra sits deep and strongly in human beings. No, the message is clear, they are that way because of their environment.

Skeels study also did not become as well-known as it deserved. On review there were multiple problems with the study, but that detracts from the overriding message. But societies and governments, in many countries, do now provide much better support for children, thankfully.

But it is still a useful reminder that investing in early childhood support for everybody in society is probably one of the best things you can do for society. it’s also a useful reminder of what human needs (SCOAP) can do for all of us

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

twitter / LinkedIn


Skeels Studies

Skeels, H M & Dye, H B (1939)
A study of the effects of differential stimulation on mentally retarded children
Proceedings and Addresses of the American Association on Mental Deficiency 44(1), 114–136.

Skeels, H. M. (1966)
Adult Status of Children with Contrasting Early Life Experiences: A Follow-Up Study.
Monogr. Soc. Res. Child Dev. 31.


Long read on the Romanian orphans at the Atlantic

Long read on the Romanian orphans in the Guardian


Brookwood, M. (2021)
The Orphans of Davenport: Eugenics, the Great Depression, and the War Over Children’s Intelligence.
New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

More Healthy Brains articles

Eat Less to Live Longer

Eat Less to Live Longer

When we talk of healthy brains we automatically think of things like exercise and nutrition that I have covered at times here. But the thing we put into the brain most is oxygen. So, let’s have a quick look at how the air we breathe impacts brain performance.

SCOAP An Introduction

SCOAP An Introduction

A comprehensive theory of human motivation, behaviour, and well-being

goals motivation brain SCOAP

What is SCOAP?

SCOAP is a complete model of human motivation, behaviour, and wellbeing, summarising over a century of research into the human brain and human behaviour in all contexts. SCOAP is an acronym for:

    • Self-Esteem
    • Control
    • Orientation
    • Attachment
    • Pleasure

I will outline here what is included in these fundamental drives of human beings, what these can be used for, what the science behind these is, and importantly, how these relate to other theories.

SCOAP neuroleadership human behaviour wellbeing

The Disciplines included in the SCOAP Model

What is SCOAP for?

SCOAP is a complete model of human motivation, behaviour, and well-being, summarising over a century of research into the human brain and human behaviour in all contexts. This therefore means this is a model of:

    1. Human Behaviour
      Why do we do what we do, what drives us over time, what engages us, what triggers us emotionally, and how we differ individually on these levels.
    1. Wellbeing
      What we need for emotional and mental wellbeing and how these are related.

This therefore also makes it a model for

    • Optimal performance
    • Optimal learning
    • Optimal brains

This can also be used in multiple contexts to stimulate optimal performance including:

    • Business: organisational performance and well-being
    • Business: team performance and well-being
    • Sports: team performance and well-being
    • Society: political dynamics
    • Society: well-being
    • Society: inter-group dynamics
    • Education: optimal performance and well-being
    • Personal: life satisfaction
    • Personal: family dynamics
    • Personal: relationship dynamics

For this short introduction we will focus mostly on business performance at the different levels (organisation, team, individual).

First, let’s understand what is included in SCOAP and how it contributes to motivation & motives, behaviour, and well-being.


SCOAP stand for the five core drivers and Needs of Self-Esteem, Control, Orientation, Attachment, and Pleasure. Each of these constructs are “big” constructs that cover various areas. For example, in Attachment we can consider relationships to our close family, to friends, to colleagues in the workplace, or society at large. One of the strengths of the SCOAP model is that the model has analysed over 54 other scientific models and synthesised these models into a coherent simplified model.

Here, in a simplified form, are Constructs (Facets) that fall under the Core Drivers (see evolutionary levels for more detail of the rationale behind these).

Neuroleadership brain SCOAP human behavior

Various constructs that can be ascribed to the needs of SCOAP.


You will notice that many of these are key themes in leadership and motivational courses. These are often reported by other models as multiple drivers (e.g. any of the three-need models) or sometimes classed as a single key driver (e.g. love is all you need). We analysed 54 needs models and showed that these all nicely slot into SCOAP and it is better to see these as Facets of the Core Needs of SCOAP.  

You may also be naturally attracted to some of these Facets and may feel that some are more important than others. However, we recommend not thinking of these in priorities, on average, because our research shows these are pretty evenly spread across populations. However, there will be individual differences. So, if you are an “attachment person” the concept of Attachment will resonate strongly with you. We explore this in the section on individualisation.

Another mistake is to class one as the primary motivation, or the “single key driver”. There have been many single driver theories throughout history, and they have contributed to the body of knowledge on human behaviour (and many were ground-breaking at the time) but we now know human beings are simply not so simple.

So SCOAP gives you a simple way to think of human behaviour by thinking of five Core Needs (and Drivers) which include numerous Facets and so cover the majority of human drives and desires.

 1. SCOAP as Behaviour and Motivation

SCOAP gives us a simple model of human behaviour and motivation. The body of knowledge into human motivation is also wide and deep. The theories fall broadly into two categories. What drives behaviour and how it drives behaviour. SCOAP also integrates other aspects of motivation, namely motivational direction, equity theory, and how we update our motivational models (build Schema) over time. Some of this would require a deep dive into the theories, the science, and the respective models of behaviour.

We define Motivation as an aroused state of goal pursuit

In this definittion of human motivation we are motivated to achieve goals. These goals are defined by our needs and personal ways we have defined these. it is also important to note that we may be motivated to achieve a goal, for example to increase status by getting abetter job, or to protect our needs by protecting our positions, ourselves, or thsoe close to us. this means we have two types fo goals Achievment Goals and Protection Goals. These drive our beahviour in our environemnts or context. Our motivioan has an outocme, nomralyl either succesful or unsuccesful. This then feeds back into our brain and understanding of the world and we will then set new goals (mostly unconsciously). We could then, for example, change the goal, or increase our energy, or change tactics. Here as an illustration.

neuroleadership motivation

The SCOAP model of human motivation.


Therfore in summary we say that all human beings are driven to fulfil or protect their Core Needs. This can include the following behaviours and motivations, with core needs listed:

    • Do a good job: mostly needs of Self-Esteem and Control
    • Move on in your career: mostly needs of Self-Esteem, Control, and Orientation
    • Help others: mostly need of Attachment
    • Win a sports match: mostly needs of Self-Esteem, Control, and Pleasure
    • Be a good friend: mostly needs of Attachment and Pleasure
    • Be a good parent: mostly needs of Attachment
    • Take a qualification: mostly needs of Orientation and Control
    • Have a good life: mostly need of Pleasure

This gives us goals, some of these are big life goals, but in daily business these are often smaller goals that may contribute to larger goals.

These goals then directly impact how we behave and what we do. This gives us an outcome that is either positive or negative. This positive or negative feedback will then lead to an emotional response and lead us to update our model and re-align our goals and our behaviour. For example, we may decide to increase effort on not reaching a goal, or we may decide to change our approach, or we may decide to give up.

For the record we should also distinguish motivation and engagement: 

Motivation is the arousal and energisation of a person towards goal achievement (over time)

Engagement is the ability of the person to engage with the task(s) of motivated goal achievement over time (therefore includes other factors such as resources, prioritisation, abilities, processes, support).

Emotional Triggers

We often use the term “emotional drivers” to describe SCOAP because this highlights the emotional and motivational aspect of these Core Needs. These Core Needs therefore trigger high emotional engagement but can also trigger high emotional responses and this can be positive or negative. We noted in the previous section motivation is about arousal and energisation. Motivational and leadership literature often talks of emotional triggers. 

Fulfilling a SCOAP need (or multiple Needs) can trigger a very positive emotional response (see next section to understand the individualisation of this).

Damaging or having a SCOAP need (or multiple Needs) violated can also trigger a negative emotional response. Again, these will be individualised to varying degrees.

SCOAP neuroleadership motivation

In the real world these come in different sizes and therefore have different impacts over different time frames.

  Life Feature Big Moderate Small Micro
Time scale Long-term Long-term Mid-term Short-term V. Short-term
Business Promotion to dream role Promotion / get the job Successful project completion Run a good meeting Be complimented on your work
Sports Win Major Title / Global Title Win Title Win a Match Have good training session Complete an exercise well
Family Get married / have a baby Child starts school Have a great holiday Have a special family meal Receive a compliment

This illustrates that these can have impacts over different time frames, and different intensities, and in different domains. The above shows only positive events but you can easily think and imagine the impacts of negative events by reversing the above e.g. “fired from dream job”

Our personal model of Core Needs will define how strongly we respond to each Need (see individualisation).

Over time each of us may (and almost certainly will) build very specific triggers to specific scenarios “I hate/love it when…”

Our responses will also be moderated by our personalities e.g. some people are more sensitive and so respond stronger to fulfilment and violation of their Needs.


SCOAP gives us an outline of drivers of human behaviour on average. However, we are all individuals and will therefore relate to the SCOAP Needs and their Facets in different ways. This will be based on our natural personality, our upbringing, and our life’s experiences.

For example, my SCOAP Profile (Andy Habermacher) would look something like this:

SCOAP motivation needs

Our research shows that the Needs, based on the SCOAP-Profile in data collected in business between 2014-17, are valued as such*.

SCOAP needs motivation brain

*Based on self-reported values on a scale of 0-10 or 0-100 and translated into %

 This shows that most people rate Self-Esteem as their most important need followed by Pleasure and Attachment, then Control and Orientation.


We have observed different patterns for individuals

Single Driver

People with single drivers focus very strongly on one Need and consider that life revolves around this. If you have this, you may have a clear life, or leadership philosophy. When we analyse some busines or leadership theories we can see that some of these have their roots in a one-dimensional view of human beings.

Double or Triple Driver

People with double or triple drivers will focus on multiple Needs and find them equally important or alternately find them the most important at different times. This will spread the focus but beware to be consistent. Again, some busines theories and leadership models focus on two or three drivers of human behaviour.

Balanced Drivers

Some people we measure, often high performers in business (but not only), showed very balanced and high Needs. This will make them engaged and motivated across all Facets and Needs. Hence the ability to commit a lot of energy and be constantly motivated. It can also make these people more sensitive to the up and downsides.

Peaks and Troughs

Some people have very high variation, sometimes within a Core Need. These people are often considered to be “high on personality” i.e. they can be seen as “special characters” because of their very strong drives or complete indifference to certain Facets of Needs. These people can be loved or disliked, probably because of their “eccentricity”.

Influence of Personality

Our personality traits will contribute to how these Needs are processed and expressed. For example, introverts may not express as clearly or emotionally their feelings and whether their Needs are fulfilled or violated. Similarly, those higher on sensitivity will respond stronger to need fulfilment or violation. We also showed in some workplace research that this contributes to well-being, and energisation in the workplace (see next section).

2. SCOAP as Well-Being

The base theory of SCOAP was built on a model of mental health and optimal human health by Klaus Grawe who proposed his Consistency Theory Model in 2004 (2007 in English) while writing on neuropsychotherapy. This summarised multiple lines of evidence and research to show that violation and lack of fulfilment leads to diminished well-being and risk of mental health disorders, and increasing fulfilment leads to better well-being and reduction of mental health disorders. In fact, he said:

“This suggests that well-being depends almost entirely on the degree to which individuals manage to attain their motivational goals”

In “motivational goals he is referring to fulfilling emotional Needs that we have reformed, reanalysed, and restructured into SCOAP. We have further refined this by measuring Needs fulfilment in an individualised way i.e. In comparison to one’s own personal model of SCOAP.

Ghadiri showed in a piece of research in 2017 that measuring mismatches in SCOAP, combined with personality traits, was a much better way to predict well-being and fatigue in the workplace.

SCOAP wellbeing brain 



So, simply put, if your workforce can, on average, fulfil their SCOAP Needs to a suitable degree they will be satisfied and have high well-being. This will enable them to commit their energy and cognitive resources. They will therefore be in a position to perform to the best of their abilities. Whether they can, or cannot, will depend on some other factors such as alignment and resources (but this will also be reflected in SCOAP feedback).


SCOAP is far from unique in ascribing well-being to human Needs. Many needs models are designed as models of human well-being, in and out of the workplace. SCOAP, however, is a balanced and comprehensive model and also measures individualisation of the Needs and therefore gives better data.

In short SCOAP is the most robust, comprehensive, and indivdualised model there is.

A Brief Scientific Background

Seymour Epstein proposed four core human Needs based on the previous theories and models:

Epstein, S., and Weiner, I. B. (2003). “Cognitive-experiential self-theory of personality,” in Comprehensive Handbook of Psychology Volume 5 Personality and Social Psychology, ed. M. J. Lerner (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), 159–184.

Klaus Grawe saw Epstein’s model as being robust and used this for his Consistency Theory Model and his writing on Neuropsychotherapy (published in German in 2004):

Grawe, K. (2007). Neuropsychotherapy: How the Neurosciences Inform Effective Psychotherapy. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Klaus Grawe and colleagues researched the efficacy of Needs fulfilment and violation in therapeutic settings:

Gassmann, D., and Grawe, K. (2006). General Change Mechanisms: The Relation Between Problem Activation and Resource Activation in Successful and Unsuccessful Therapeutic Interactions. Clin. Psychol. Psychother. 13, 1–11. doi:10.1002/cpp.

Smith, E. C., and Grawe, K. (2003). What makes psychotherapy sessions productive? A new approach to bridging the gap between process research and practice. Clin. Psychol. Psychother. 10, 275–285.

Grosse Holtforth, M., Pincus, A. L., Grawe, K., Mauler, B., and Castonguay, L. G. (2007). When What You Want is Not What You Get: Motivational Correlates of Interpersonal Problems in Clinical and Nonclinical Samples. J. Soc. Clin. Psychol. 26, 1095–1119.

Holtforth, M. G., Bents, H., Mauler, B., and Grawe, K. (2006). Interpersonal distress as a mediator between avoidance goals and goal satisfaction in psychotherapy inpatients. Clin. Psychol. Psychother. 13, 172–182. doi:10.1002/cpp.486.

Holtforth, M. G., and Schneider, W. (2008). “Motivation und Motivationskonflikte,” in Störungsorientierte Psychotherapie doi:10.1016/b978-343723730-0.50013-6.

Grosse Holtforth, M., and Grawe, K. (2004). Inkongruenz und Fallkonzeption in der Psychologischen Therapie. Verhal. Psychosoz. Prax.

Holtforth, M. G., Grawe, K., Fries, A., and Znoj, H. (2008). Inkonsistenz als Differenzielles Indikationskriterium in der Psychotherapie – Eine Randomisierte Kontrollierte Studie. Z. Klin. Psychol. Psychother. doi:10.1026/1616-3443.37.2.103.

Grosse Holtforth and Grawe develop assessments to measure Needs of patients:

Grosse Holtforth, M., and Grawe, K. (2000). Fragebogen zur Analyse Motivationaler Schemata (FAMOS). Z. Klin. Psychol. Psychother. 29, 170–179. doi:10.1026//0084-5345.29.3.170.

Grosse Holtforth, M., and Grawe, K. (2003). Der Inkongruenzfragebogen (INK). Z. Klin. Psychol. Psychother. 32, 315–323. doi:10.1026//1616-3443.32.4.315.

Argang Ghadiri and Prof. Theo Peters write on neuroleadership and use Grawe’s model as a basis for understanding leadership efficacy. Andy Habermacher collaborates on the English book:

Peters, T., and Ghadiri, A. (2011). Neuroleadership – Grundlagen, Konzepte, Beispiele: Erkenntnisse der Neurowissenschaften für die Mitarbeiterführung. Wiesbaden: Gabler Verlag.

Ghadiri, A., Habermacher, A., and Peters, T. (2012). Neuroleadership – A Journey Through The Brain for Business Leaders. Berlin: Springer.

Habermacher, Ghadiri, and Peters do further research and formally name the model the SCOAP Model:

Habermacher, A., Peters, T., and Ghadiri, A. (2014). The Case for Basic Needs in Coaching: A neuroscientific perspective – The SCOAP Coach Theory. Coach. Psychol. 10, 7–16.

Ghadiri, A., Habermacher, A., and Peters, T. (2014). “SCOAP als Bedürfnisstheorie for das Neuromarketing.,” in Internationale Trends in der Markenkommunikation: Was Glabalisierung, neue Median und Nachhaltigkeit erfordern, eds. A. Ternès and I. Towers (Wiesbaden: Springer Gabler), 1–13.

Habermacher, A. (2014). The neuroscience of motivation: how basic human needs and motivation direct coaching interventions. in SGCP 4th International Congress of Coaching Psychology (London).

Habermacher, A., Ghadiri, A., and Peters, T. (2016). Human needs and their evolutionary development as drivers for decision making. Poster Present. NPE 2016. Proc. 12th NeuroPsychoEconomics Conf. 2016 June 2-3; Bonn, Ger.

Habermacher, Ghadiri, and Peters develop and validate the SCOAP-Profile and measure this in organisational contexts

Ghadiri, A. (2017). Bedürfnisse messen – Eine empirische Studie im organisationalen Kontext. Zeitschrift für Führung und Organ. 1, 18–23.

Habermacher, Ghadiri, and Peters publish the updated SCOAP model as a comprehensive theory with analysis of all previous Needs models

Habermacher, A., Ghadiri, A., and Peters, T. (2020). Describing the elephant: a foundational model of human needs, motivation, behaviour, and wellbeing. doi:10.31234/

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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Eat Less to Live Longer

Eat Less to Live Longer

When we talk of healthy brains we automatically think of things like exercise and nutrition that I have covered at times here. But the thing we put into the brain most is oxygen. So, let’s have a quick look at how the air we breathe impacts brain performance . . .


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leadership brain magazine

Lower smartphone usage increases wellbeing

Lower smartphone usage increases wellbeing

smartphone wellbeing brain

So much has been said about smartphone usage in modern times. This ranges from some who say that they are destroying our brain to others who see they benefit our cognition by outsourcing cognitive heavy tasks like remembering lists of phone numbers – thereby freeing up memory storage for other stuff.

A bunch of research does point to there being connections between smartphone usage and a decrease in wellbeing and this is what researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum wanted to know more about.

They recruited 619 people and they were randomly assigned to three groups.

    • One group abstained from any smartphone usage for 7 days.
    • The second group reduced their smartphone usage by one hour per day.
    • The third group carried on as usual.

The then followed up one month and four months later checking with continued smartphone usage and health and wellbeing questions also. What did they find?

Those who reduced smartphone usage had better health and well-being, including external measures such as how much they exercised or smoked. This effect could be measured after four months. However, what was interesting was that the group that reduced smartphone usage rather than abstained showed the largest and most stable results.

So, it appears that there is a sweet spot and reducing smartphone usage only, is the best strategy for higher health and well-being!



Julia Brailovskaia, Jasmin Delveaux, Julia John, Vanessa Wicker, Alina Noveski, Seokyoung Kim, Holger Schillack, Jürgen Margraf. 
Finding the “sweet spot” of smartphone use: Reduction or abstinence to increase well-being and healthy lifestyle?! An experimental intervention study.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2022
DOI: 10.1037/xap0000430

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