Your Lizard Brain is Sabotaging Your Job Interviews. Here’s How to Fight Back.

Monitor lizard in the wild


You know that hateful jelly-for-legs, butterflies-in-the-tummy sensation you get leading up to a job interview?

The fear that you’ll say the wrong things.

Forget your “lines.”

Take comfort, you’re not the only one. Among the most common fears of jobseekers is that they will clam up when a curveball question is thrown at them…and it’s not hard to imagine the whole thing just going downhill from there.

So much stress, so much anxiety. Is there any way around it?

This is not a post about tactical stuff like what the most common interview questions are or how to best answer tricky questions such as “What are your greatest weaknesses?”  Those are all good, but this post is about the most strategic of job interview techniques: neuro-hacking—pitching our will against our mind.

Yes, you read that right. You are not your thoughts, but more on this later.

Help, I have a lizard brain


“I prepared what I was going to say, but somehow, the words just wouldn’t come out during the interview!”

Sound familiar?

Or how about this—“Well, now I know how to answer that. But in the interview room, my mind was frozen. I could barely think!”

You can blame that on your lizard brain.

Buried deep at the base of our brain is a tiny, almond-shaped piece of grey matter known as the amygdala. According to neuroscience, this little nugget is responsible for the most primal of our behaviours (hence the term “lizard brain”) like feeding, reproduction, and our survival instincts i.e. the fight-or flight response.

When faced with a fearful stimulus, the amygdala sends out signals to other parts of the brain to physically marshal our bodies to either fight or flee. Your heart starts pounding faster. Rate of breathing increases. Muscles tense up.

As far as the lizard brain is concerned, self-preservation is the name of the game.

Back in the day, our ancestors were exposed to the constant threat of being mauled by wild animals. So this fight-or-flight reflex is literally a lifesaver when you’re trying to avoid becoming somebody’s lunch. But when you’re up against a threat that’s more psychological than physical (such as a belligerent boss at work, a live audience…or an interview panel), the fight-or-flight response actually works against us.

Why? When the amygdala/lizard brain takes over the wheel, it also shuts down the frontal lobes (the part of the brain responsible for logical thinking) and turns us into a bumbling wreck.

This is the reason we can’t think properly when we’re in panic mode. A psychologist named Daniel Goleman called this overreaction to non-life threatening stressors the “amygdala hijack.”

This is also why it doesn’t work when you’re anxious and someone tells you to calm down. It’s too late, because control has been “hijacked” by the amygdala. Logic has flown out the window.

The only defense is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

But how?

Walk into the room like you already won the job.

(hat-tip to Gillian Anderson a.k.a. X-Files’ Dana Scully who posted this on her Instagram as one of the best pieces of advice she received from a more senior actress)

Try it now.

Recall how you would typically feel before an interview. Clammy palms, swishy tummy, brain filled with marshmallow.

Now imagine walking into the room like you already won the job (or in her case, audition).

Can you not immediately feel the difference?

The panic dissipates.

Your shoulders loosen.

Your mind clears up.

Now pull up that job ad for the VP of Sales and Marketing role that you so want to land.

At once, your brain goes into problem-solving mode. What do I need to do first? Who are my competitors and what are they doing? What does our value chain look like, what pain points are we solving for our customers, and how can we do that better?

You roll up your sleeves and you start doing hefty research. You’re intrigued by the insights you’ve uncovered…the unmet customer needs…the size of an untapped market…by the time you walk into the interview room, you’re so well prepared and enthusiastic about the job, you’re not even going to be worrying about impressing anyone.

Because when you’re not stressed up but in your own skin, engaged and in a state of constructive urgency, inspiration and creativity, you cannot help but bring your A-game.

You frame the challenge differently. Correct framing leads to asking the right questions, which leads to finding the solutions your interviewers want to hear.

Your confidence is boosted. This changes your body language and your tone of voice, both of which make up 93% of what you communicate. And what you want to communicate is the voice of reason and an air of authority.

Why it works


This brain hack is based on two key neurological principles.

Principle #1: You are not your thoughts.

Who you are is separate from the thoughts you think. This is why the Bible says to “take every thought captive.” This is an important one, because if you believe that the negative, self-defeating thoughts are your own, you will not fight it but internalise it, and ultimately self-sabotage.

In the video below, renowned UK therapist Marisa Peer conducted a simple thought experiment to prove the point that you can tell your mind what to think, or not to think.


Principle #2: Our mind is a servant to what we think and say. 

Peer also says, “Every thought you think and every word you say forms a blueprint and your mind must work to make that blueprint real. The mind will believe everything you tell it. The mind does not care if what it heard is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, healthy or unhealthy, it just lets it in. So tell your mind to think great things!”

So when you think, “I’m not gonna be able to impress the interviewers,” your brain will work to execute that self-sabotage.

When you think, “I’m the new VP of Sales and Marketing for this company,” your brain will get to work to make you perform that job.

At the end of the day, the best interviews are not interrogations but interchanges of ideas and possibilities. But the realm of engagement and creativity can never be entered into when you’re operating with the “lizard brain.”

Try out this brain hack the next time you go for an interview, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself not only enjoying it but steering the entire conversation and charming the socks off everyone. Even if you don’t get the job in the end, you would have made it worth your while.

Hey, if it’s good enough for a Hollywood A-lister like Gillian Anderson, it’s good enough for us!

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About Nadine Yong

A certified resume writer and career coach, Nadine sits on the Certification Committee Member of the Professional Association of Resume Writers & Career Coaches. She has been featured on, Channel NewsAsia and JobsCentral Career Summit (2014 & 2015).

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