Six Degrees of Separation

What—or rather, who—do a veterinarian in Norway, an events planner in England and a student in Siberia have in common? As “targets” in two recent studies, they received messages, transmitted from friend to friend, from strangers hundreds of miles away—proof that you don’t have to be Kevin Bacon to be well-connected. In 1967, psychologist Stanley Milgram coined the phrase “six degrees of separation” to describe the world-shrinking effects of social networks. Milgram asked 300 Midwesterners to get a package to a Boston stockbroker by mailing it to one acquaintance, who would then forward it to another acquaintance and so on. Surprisingly, the nearly 100 packages that reached the stockbroker landed in his mailbox in an average of only six steps. Last year, Columbia University researchers in New York replicated the Milgram-inspired small world study via e-mail, asking 61,168 participants to deliver messages to 18 targets ranging in location and occupation from the Norwegian veterinarian to the Siberian student. While only 324 chains were fully completed, those chains averaged five to seven steps, jibing with Milgram’s original findings. The researchers blame the high attrition rate on participants’ lack of motivation. They note that chains targeting a Cornell University professor succeeded disproportionately—not because his circle of friends surpassed other targets’, but because college-educated participants felt more confident they could reach him. To test the effects of confidence on networkers, British psychologist Richard Wiseman targeted events planner Katie Smith. Ten packages (out of 100) reached Smith, in an average of just four steps. Volunteers who had previously rated themselves “lucky” got packages to Smith more often, supporting Wiseman’s belief that people who consider themselves fortunate cultivate larger networks. Expecting eventual success, they’re motivated to continue the chain—a finding that corroborates the Columbia study. In other words, your network may be farther-reaching than you think, as long as you’re confident enough to tap into it.

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