Six Degrees of Separation: Are We Really All Connected?

By Sara Bollman

When using the Atlas CareMap, may caregivers find that they are more connected with people and institutions around them than they had realized. This can also lead to greater appreciation for our many sources of support and the strong communities that develop when we share similar goals and experiences. It may also give us pause to wonder: Are we all connected?

Most of us have probably heard of the “six degrees of separation” concept. This is the idea that all human beings, all other living things, and all other things in the world are fewer than six steps or connections away from one another.

The idea is often credited to the psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose work in social networks in the 1960’s laid the foundation for the theory. Though Milgram himself didn’t invent the term and was not known to use it, his work did demonstrate that human society is surprisingly connected.

Indeed, there is truth in expression that “it’s a small world.” Though they didn’t speculate on global connections, Milgram and other researchers of the time actually found that all people in the United States are connected by, on average, three to five friendship links.

While some contemporary work has claimed to debunk the “urban myth” of six degrees of separation, and it is correct to note that Milgram’s experiments do lack the rigor we’d want to see in anything touted by Psychology Today in 2017, it may be premature to abandon the theory entirely.

In the early 2000’s, researchers at Columbia, including the sociologist and network theorist Duncan Watts, set about investigating Milgram’s claims. Ultimately, findings pointed to a social network far more complex than what Milgram described, but not completely contradictory. With the advantages of modern computing and the internet, the researchers used approximately 60,000 email chains, originating in 163 countries to find that six degrees of separation is a pretty solid estimate of linkages between any two individuals. Researchers at Microsoft later made similar validations of the original theory of six degrees.

Whether the theory is precisely correct or not may not really matter all that much. Perhaps it’s five degrees, or seven, or eight. These options are reasonable based on existing research and all of them point to the truth that we live in a small world, characterized by connectedness and interdependence.

Overall, even researchers such as Judith Kleinfeld, who believe that small-world theories may be entirely wrong, acknowledge that the ideas are nonetheless easy for many of us to accept. According to Kleinfeld, we may want to believe in the connectedness innate in being a mere handful of linkages away from any other person in the world because it provides a sense of security.

Long before Milgram, writers, mathematicians, and general thinkers took note of a world shrinking with modernity. In 1929, the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy described the ever-increasing connectedness of human beings where the growing density of human networks deemphasized great physical distances between people. And this was nearly a half-century before the Internet was even a full concept. Karinthy wrote a short story where characters could be connected through a maximum of five acquaintances, an astute prediction for its time.

By some interpretations, short path lengths in social networks and small-world properties are the architecture of connectedness. They are what allow us to spread information, experience feelings of relatedness or belonging, and perhaps even boost our longevity and social health and well-being. Interestingly, for many aspects of our individual lives, the strength of social connections might matter much less than the existence of the connections in themselves.

Theorists in sociology and social networks, most notably Mark Granovetter, have often described a phenomenon known as the strength of weak ties. Interpersonal ties are information-carrying connections between people. Strong ties represent significant, deep connections, like those between close friends or family members. Weak ties on the other hand, exist between acquaintances or even strangers with similar cultural backgrounds or overlapping social circles.  As it turns out, these weak ties play the biggest role in transmitting information and embedding social networks in society, contributing to the formation and evolution of social norms and structures.

Small world theories and the strength of weak ties remind us of the importance of looking closely at our own networks and not discounting the power of even weak or distant social connections. Keeping all of this in mind while drawing and using your own CareMap may be as useful as it is comforting. Potential support and access to valuable resources may come from unexpected members of a caregiver’s network.

 

Sara is a writer and researcher who works with non-profits and startups to conduct comprehensive market research that considers social scientific factors. She has previously worked on academic projects in health policy, social demography, and applied microeconomics. She received her BS in Mathematics and her BA in Economics from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014.