Social Science - Other

Six Degrees of Separation Explained

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"Six Degrees of Separation Explained"
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For all intents and purposes, Stanley Milgram's Small World experiments are, at best, inconclusive and misleading. Yet the idea of being connected in some small way to people on the other side of the world has spawned a fascination that has ignited the imagination of the American Public. "6 Degrees of Separation" has become iconic pop culture. But the results of the experiments are inconclusive and Milgram's reporting methods are suspect. What is missing from the report? What might be the reasons for the failure of the experiments? And why do we continue to embrace the concept of "6 -Degrees of Separation" in spite of its abysmal failure?

The Experiment late 1960s, done through the US Mail
Set up to investigate the connectedness of randomly selected people, Milgram's first experiment originated with sixty people in Wichita, Kansa, and ended with one person in Boston. Participants in Wichita were sent a packet which explained the experiment and provided basic information about the receiver, the target the wife of a divinity student, in Boston. The rules of the game were to pass the packet on to someone they knew on a first name basis who they thought could get it closer to the target. In this experiment, each of the originating people started a "chain" to see who could get the information to the target in the least number of moves. Each participant was to sign the packet and send it on and send a postcard to the Harvard researchers. In the event of a break in the chain, it would be easier to identify where the break occurred.

Using the same set up as the first experiment, a second experiment was run several years later using 160 people in Omaha, Nebraska, with the target being a stock broker in Sharon, Massachusetts.

Report Results
Both experiments were, by scientific standards, a failure. The first experiment had a 5% completion rate (3 packets were received by the target) and the second experiment had a 29% completion rate (46 packets were received by the target).

Milgram also side stepped the academic publishing process the first time and reported his experiment, without the completion rates, to the general public. His second experiment was published in an academic journal.

Reasons for Failure
There any number of reasons why the experiments were unsuccessful. Milgram listed the following as the most likely:
1. The participants lacked interest or motivation.
2. The participants didn't know anyone close to the geographic location of the target
3. Participants, not knowing who to contact, contacted no one.

A subsequent experiment by Duncan Watts in 2003 used email instead of regular mail. Watts found similar reasons as to why participants did not complete the chain except for reason number three. Apparently less that one half of one percent didn't know who to send the email packet to. Watts felt that other problems like spam were more likely to have contributed to non-participation.

Both Milgram and Watts agreed that motivation or interest might very well be the key to success. Watts stated that people will find a way IF they are motivated. Being able to motivate others to support you and keep the interest high, is another key; networking and connecting to others appears to be one of the hallmarks of success.

It is a well known fact that when you are looking for a job, it is most likely you'll find that job through a friend of a friend who knew someone who had a job opening (3 degrees of separation). This is called networking "6 Degrees of Separation" working in our every day lives. There are other examples that we often define as synchronistic you are looking for a new couch and mention it and a friend remembers someone telling them about a sale; you go and find the couch that needs to live with you. Or you want a new puppy or kitten and you talk about it and sure enough, someone knows someone and that leads to your new pet.

Motivating through talking, keeping the contacts simple with little required of the other person appears to be one way to accomplish 6 degrees or less of separation. Follow through is another important factor.

Malcolm Gladwell has a different idea. Author of The Tipping Point and Blink, Gladwell investigated Milgram's second small world experiment. Using Milgram's own analysis, Gladwell punctuated the fact that of the 29% of the packets that did reach the target, the stock broker in Massachusetts, half of them were delivered by the same three people; 24 packets from unknown people in Omaha, Nebraska, were delivered by only three people.

Gladwell went on to refine Milgram's findings: "It does not mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few" (Gladwell, p. 37).
Gladwell calls these folks "Connectors".

Embracing the concept of "6 - Degrees of Separation" even when scientific evidence indicates it is not plausible.
In a world separated by political and religious ideologies, people struggle to find commonalities. It is, to some degree, romantic to think that we are not as isolated as we feel; if we are not isolated, maybe there aren't as many difference between us as we've been led to believe. Politicians call this suicidal, but maybe it is more of an innocent cry to survive. If the distance between us isn't that big, maybe the differences between us are over-come-able.

Interesting Facts
Through out this whole investigation, Milgram never called his investigations "6 Degrees of Separation". He referred to it as a "small world study".
Milgram noted that the AVERAGE number of connections between people was six.

Devita-Raeburn, Elizabeth. "If There's Really Only Six Degrees (of Separation) Between Us and Osama bin Laden, Why Can't We Find Him?" Discover. Feb. 2008. Corey Powell, Ex. Editor. P. 43 46.

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. Little, Brown and Company, New York. 2002.

"Stanley Milgram." Wikipedia. Date accessed: 2.4.08.

More about this author: Carolyn Varvel

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