Six Degrees of Separation

Two new studies test 'Six Degrees of Separation' hypothesis

By Darby Saxbe, published on November 1, 2003 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

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.