Bea Boccalandro and Barry Schwartz
Published 2 years ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Can businesses do anything to mitigate their employees’ vulnerability to fake news? And should they? Corporate schooling might be an uncomfortable idea, but it could be essential to the future of US capitalism and democracy.
When the United States was three years old, Thomas Jefferson proposed
government-provided education as a way to protect democracy from tyranny. Now
that the country is approaching its 250th year, we need business-provided
education for the same reason. Corporate schooling might be as uncomfortable an
idea as government education was in Jefferson’s time, but it could be essential
to the future of the US' economy and democracy.
Tens of millions of adults in the US have been manipulated into believing
preposterous and disproven stories, with tragic results. We've witnessed people
expose each other to a deadly virus to protest a proven safety behavior —
wearing a cloth mask — that is low-burden, inexpensive and has no substantive
downsides. Thousands of our citizens have given up their lives, and the lives of
loved ones, to oppose the very practice that could have saved them. And it’s not
only those on the political right who fall victim to fake news. For example, an
untold number of left-leaning individuals were enraged that Lancaster,
Pennsylvania, ran a Jewish family out of
for not celebrating Christmas, something that never happened. Clearly, many
people in the US suffer from impaired thinking.
Most of these individuals with impaired thinking spend their days in workplaces,
whether physically or virtually. They interpret quarterly sales reports. They
interview job prospects. Their choice of sales strategy and of new hires likely
undermines the fortunes and darkens the fate of business. The Capitol
insurrection in January established that the inability to distinguish truth from
fiction is a societal catastrophe. It’s also, however, a potential business
Can businesses do anything to mitigate their employees’ vulnerability to fake
news? Should they? We think the answer to both questions is yes. Over the last
50 years, the responsibilities placed on companies has grown to include
environmental stewardship, supply-chain human rights and racial justice. Citizen
critical thinking appears to be the next ESG (Environment, Social and
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One proven contributor to the fake-beliefs epidemic is lack of formal
School attendance is
known to boost
critical-thinking skills — the ability to reason, evaluate evidence and
comprehend complex ideas. Critical thinking, in turn, has been
to reduce vulnerability to mistruths. Universal higher education would likely
improve our collective cognitive troubles dramatically; but it’s too expensive
for many, doesn’t help today’s adult population and would take decades before it
produced meaningful results. Fortunately, there’s another path.
Research suggests that relatively straightforward critical-thinking training
lasting hours, not years, is effective. There is even evidence that a one-time
15-minute carefully crafted
game inoculates players
against fake news. This isn’t to say that workplace critical-thinking training
is plug and play. Indeed, some cognitive biases that undermine critical thinking
are notoriously difficult to overcome. Yet, these challenges are not unlike
those encountered by existing workplace training, especially when they were
first instituted. Provided they design critical-thinking training in accordance
with the evidence of what
little doubt that employers can offer their workers cost-effective protection
against fake news. The next question, then, is: Should they? Following are three
key reasons the answer to this question is also yes.
Employers might be the only ones that can increase adult resiliency to
fake news. Few people would self-select as poor critical thinkers and
people don’t voluntarily sign up for training they don’t think they need.
Thus, employers are likely the only societal actors who can enroll large
numbers of adults in critical-thinking training. They already require safety
and other trainings.
Business would benefit from it. Workforces with high levels of critical
thinking have many potential advantages:
Higher employee performance. Employers have long
known that a
scarcity of critical thinking across new hires undermines their success.
However, workplace critical-thinking training is still rare outside of
leadership programs. Businesses that train their full workforces in
critical thinking will, in all likelihood, boost employee — and thus,
company — performance.
Higher employee wellbeing. Consumption of fake news induces fear,
rage and otherwise compromises mental
— and, thus, productivity. The wellness case for employee cognitive
development is likely as strong as it is for smoking cessation, physical
fitness or financial
Lower brand risk. Social media has circulated false stories of
parasite-infested Coca-Cola beverages, murderous Xbox consoles
and Starbucks discounts for undocumented residents. Training would
minimize how many employees fall for hostile fabrications about their
Democracy might depend on it. If the ransacking of Congress by an armed
mob isn’t sufficient proof that misinformed citizens are a threat to
democracy, the long-time warnings from the
Workplace critical-thinking training that counters the pernicious impact of fake
news might be an investment employers can’t afford not to make. Workplaces and
countries infected by dangerous delusions are unhealthy and unstable. America
needs to do everything it can on every front, including the business front, to
free victims of fake news from their private nightmares, to rescue our democracy
from its precarious perch, and to make our market economy resilient in an
Published Sep 21, 2021 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Bea Boccalandro is founder and president of VeraWorks, a global advisory firm that helps companies ignite purpose at work, and author of "Do Good at Work: How Simple Acts of Social Purpose Drive Success and Wellbeing" (2020).
Barry Schwartz is a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business and author of the 2015 book, "Why We Work."