Small World, After All

Two new studies test "The 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.