Most of us have heard that we are only six degrees of separation from any person on earth. This idea has been updated with a Hollywood version – Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. I ran across an article from Discover magazine online that discusses the original research that led to this popular notion of connection between people world-wide.
The original study was done by Stanley Milgram, who is famous for another experiment in which he proved that people will administer shock to other people if someone in authority is giving the orders. The six degrees study was revisited by psychology professor Judith Kleinfeld and her class. In Milgram’s initial study, he gave 60 envelopes to people and then had them try to get those envelopes to strangers in as few steps as possible. What Kleinfeld discovered in looking at Milgram’s study was that only 3 of those 60 envelopes actually reached their targets. That’s a pretty lousy success rate to draw any sort of conclusion from.
In re-examining the study, it seems that the critical factor in accomplishing the six degrees of separation is motivation. If anyone along the line decides not to move the envelope along, it won’t reach its eventual destination. It’s not just who you know – it’s who you know that has the energy to make the next contact.