Religion, The Internet And The Spotlight Effect

Longtime readers know we don’t shy away from controversial topics or ideas that merit exploration simply because they carry social taboos. With that, we’ve discussed religion in the past because it’s easily one of the best examples of the efficacy of marketing.

We’ve also discussed that (no matter how you personally feel about it) the Internet is accelerating the disruption of religion.

So it was interesting to come across a new piece of research sharing that religion will disappear completely by 2041. That data is also supported by recent research from PEW, showing the consistent upward trend of non-religious:


If you were to extrapolate this out to 2041 and consider how the increasing spread of information is accelerating the disruption of archaic beliefs, perhaps 2041 is not too optimistic.

Along with the data we’ve all been seeing the change around us first-hand. I’ve heard consistent stories in my personal life from friends, colleagues and relatives of how religion simply is no longer relevant for their happiness, cultural / lifestyle choices and altogether incongruent with the world around them. In many cases, this is due to the spread of information on how the universe actually works (or historical truths unveiled).

A recent NY Times story titled: Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt brings this to life:

When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda,” the whisperings of Lucifer. He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mr. Mattsson began his own investigation.

But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.

…around the world and in the United States, where the faith was founded, the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith, according to interviews with dozens of Mormons and those who study the church.

Of course, again, it’s not just Mormons, it’s all religions. Reading this story and considering the larger trend of religious disruption, it became clear to me this morning why the Internet is so powerful here: it’s due to its potency of dissolving the Spotlight Effect. I learned about this idea from researchers Chip and Dan Heath in their latest book: Decisive: how to make better choices in life and work. What is the Spotlight Effect?


We are quick to jump to conclusions because we give too much weight to the information that’s right in front of us, while failing to consider the information that’s just offstage (or onstage but not lit up). Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemen called this tendency “what you see is all there is.” Keeping with Kahneman’s visual metaphor, Chip & Dan refer to this tendency as the Spotlight Effect (think of the way a spotlight in a theater directs our attention; what’s inside the spotlight is crisply illuminated). Of course, a spotlight only lights a spot. Everything outside it is obscured and might as well not even exist.

When exposed to religion at a young age, many in the past would just succumb to the spotlight effect and be done with it. It’s what they see, it’s their world, it’s what was told to them, it feels like the right decision to believe, so it must be true. But the sharing of information enabled by the Internet is making it too clear to ignore reality. What happens when the entire room is illuminated and we see the world is not flat? That monsters don’t exist in the dark, that the universe is governed by physics, not Ra the sun god. We are forced to adjust our beliefs. We learn to question the world (this, questioning everything, should be instilled in everyone from a young age).

Watching this all unfold and the change of our society is fascinating to me both as a marketer and student of sociology. In the future (and the present, for many) it’s ever-increasingly a [citation needed] world. We need to embrace this personally and professionally and be ready to source with definitive research and data why our decisions make sense, our products should be sold and our ideas accepted. And this is a good thing for everyone.

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