Work Daze: Blame It on the Amygdala

By Bob Goldman

Think it takes years of hard work to convince people that you are unlikeable, unreliable and generally untrustworthy? Think again. Meet the amydgala— a fancy-shmancy hunk of brain matter that detects and delivers a neural spoiler within milliseconds.

That’s what I learned in “The Mistakes You Make in a Meeting’s First Milliseconds,” a recent Sue Shellenbarger column in The Wall Street Journal.

As Shellenbarger reports, “first impressions are formed in milliseconds, based on instinctive responses in the brain’s emotion-processing center,” or, as it’s known to its friends—of which it has none—the amygdala.

If you wonder why it’s important what an amygdala thinks of you, the answer is it’s all about trust. The instant reaction when people first meet you can determine the entire course of a long-term relationship. As Shellenbarger writes, you “must gain others’ trust to perform well in meetings, interviews or other gatherings.” Trust is also useful when applying for a loan, or explaining to the bank officer who approved your loan that he really doesn’t have to break your legs to ensure that you will pay it back.

Fortunately, there are a few simple steps to make sure you are putting your best foot forward.

Or your best eyebrow.

Research shows that “Faces with a wider distance between the eyes and eyebrows are seen as more trustworthy.” Shaving off your eyebrows or wearing an eye patch are excellent ways to fool the amygdala. I especially like the eye-patch idea. You may even want to wear two! (Putting a parrot on your shoulder is another sign of trustworthiness. Plus, if your business career doesn’t work out, you could always find an entry-level position with Captain Barbossa.)

If you find it difficult to generate trust with your beady little weasel eyes—which I happen to love— there are other techniques you can use. Once again, your eyebrows are a key element.

“A happy expression, with the corners of the mouth turned upward and eyebrows relaxed, is likely to inspire trust,” Shellenbarger reports, citing a 2012 study that showed players in an online investment game trusted partners with an upturned mouth and loosey-goosey eyebrows “with 42 percent more money than those whose partners looked downbeat and threatening.”

This makes no sense. If you’re going to trust someone with your money, you definitely don’t want him or her to look happy. Happy people may appear trustworthy to an ivy-tower amydgala in a laboratory setting, but with what’s going on in the real world, anyone who isn’t downbeat and threatening has to be totally disconnected from reality.

According to Judson Vaughn, an “impression-management consultant,” the key to presenting a trustworthy image is your “dominant face.” “People tend to distrust others whose … habitual expression is grumpy, disapproving or angry,” says the former actor, which is perfectly true. What is slightly suspicious is how Vaughn met your manager.

Vaughn also suggests that how you shake hands is critical to your instant image. He recommends that you don’t extend your arm to shake hands but “relax your arm and lower your elbow to your side, drawing the other person closer to you.” Of course, if your new acquaintances have been to the same coach and try to pull you closer, you will have to exert sufficient pressure to bring them to their knees, at which point you can put on your dominant face and demand they trust you, or else.

Lisa Peers, another actor currently performing as a “workplace-communications coach,” recommends “breathing techniques to foster relaxed, confident movement.” Personally, I’m a big fan of breathing, but there are times when breathing can negatively affect your career. Threatening to hold your breath until you turn red is a powerful technique for getting a raise, while not breathing until you pass out is an excellent way to escape a long, boring meeting and treat yourself to an exciting ambulance ride.

Yet another tip for exuding trust comes from yet another actor and communications coach, Hilary Blair, who takes pains to “stand with her hands relaxed and visible at her side, rather than hidden in her pockets or crossed defensively in front of her.” This makes sense, though I suppose that to make it work, you will have to crawl out from under your desk. While you’re at it, be sure to have enough Botox on hand to turn your scowl into a smile, and put on an eye patch—or two.

And don’t forget your parrot. He hates to be excluded from big meetings.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He now works out of Bellingham, Washington. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at