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What is Six Degrees of Separation?

By J. Beam
Updated May 23, 2024
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Six degrees of separation refers to a theory that all people on Earth are connected to one another by no more than six separate individuals. A theory that parallels the idea that “it’s a small world,” it maintains that, through a series of connections or steps, all people have the potential to know one another on a first name basis through mutual acquaintances.

The theory has been examined through research for proof that the theory holds true. Milgram’s Small World Experiment, a study conducted by Stanley Milgram, a researcher of social psychology at Harvard University, is perhaps the most famous such experiment. Though Milgram reportedly never used the term "six degrees of separation," his experimental findings did somewhat support the theory.

Milgram’s Small World Experiment began in the late 1960s. He conducted various experiments that involved sending informational packets from one starting individual to an ending individual, neither of whom personally knew each other. The packets contained rosters where participants in the study passed on the packet and then listed their names and mailed postcards to researchers at Harvard for tracking purposes. The results of Milgram’s experiments, though not exactly scientific, concluded that those packets that reached the targeted recipients had an average path length of five to six people.

A similar study was conducted in 2001 by Professor Watts at Columbia University. This modern day experiment was performed using email messages at the packet that was passed along. His findings also concluded that the average number of people within a given chain was six.

Though there is no solid scientific evidence that the six degrees of separation theory is correct, it, along with the small world phenomenon, remains an area of interest to social researches. It is a theory that has also received attention in popular culture including the famous play of the same name written by John Guare, which was adapted into a screenplay for the 1993 film starring Will Smith, Stockard Channing, and Donald Sutherland.

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Discussion Comments
By Oceana — On Aug 18, 2011

I don’t doubt it one bit. I have had too many coincidences happen in my lifetime with random people to think that six degrees of separation is impossible.

I had a best friend in high school who moved to Vermont. We lost touch for a few years. When I met my future husband, I found out that his brother had dated her for nearly a year!

When I finally met his mother, I was shocked to discover that she and my mother had gone to school together and were once great friends. Also, she had dated my dad before he and my mom got together.

There is no doubt in my mind that when God designed the universe, he planned for there to be many connections between seemingly unrelated people and situations. It keeps life interesting, and it makes us feel less alone.

By cloudel — On Aug 18, 2011

@OeKc05 - You might be surprised. I can think of a couple of scenarios that might offer a connection between you and a native of a foreign tribe.

Often, missionaries from the United States seek out the most uncivilized, uneducated people to spread their message to. They want these people to have a chance to accept Jesus, and if they have never heard the message, they have no way of knowing. They feel a responsibility to get the word out to everyone.

Maybe one of your neighbors is a missionary who has gone to one of these tribes. If not, then possibly your neighbor’s brother is one. You never know.

Also, medical staff go to foreign lands to administer care to people like this suffering from malaria, malnourishment, and other conditions. Maybe your doctor was among them. It is very possible.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 17, 2011

I am a bit doubtful of this theory. Certainly, there could be connections between people in the same state or even country, but I highly doubt that if you grouped me with six people from an underdeveloped nation, you would find any connection.

Largely, these people stay within their own tribes and don’t procreate with outsiders. They often have no contact with others, and they become violent when approached by strangers. How could an American have any connection to someone who has never left the comfort of their small community? I think the theory would come under fire if applied in this situation.

By Perdido — On Aug 16, 2011

That is an intriguing theory! I had always heard the term, but I never knew what it meant until now.

I certainly believe it could be true. I am always discovering connections between people I previously thought were unrelated in every way.

For example, my coworker introduced me to her friend Jeff, who was married to a woman named Sarah that I did not get to meet right away. Years later, she set me up on a blind date with a man named Josh, who turned out to be Sarah’s sister and Jeff’s brother-in-law.

We ended up getting married, and now I am connected to all four of those people. I have been added to the chain.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Aug 16, 2011

I have always really like the idea of 6 degrees of separation because it means that no one is as far away as they seem. The reason that it is so cool to realize the links you have to other people is that it means you are not alone, that you have a presence in the world an an effect on peoples lives.

Modern life can be very isolating. Sometimes it feels like you never really get to know anyone. But when you take the time to sit down and really figure out how you fit into the web of the world you realize that you are an important part of lots of peoples lives. I take a lot of comfort in this idea.

By whiteplane — On Aug 15, 2011

I am always shocked how often this old theory holds up to be true. I have sat down with my friends and compared social circles and acquaintances and it seems like we all end up knowing just about everyone else that everyone knows.

It works with a lot of celebrities too. There is the old game about Kevin bacon but it works with most major Hollywood actors and actresses. They say that it is a small world and I guess that this is the proof.

By geekish — On Aug 15, 2011

I have had lots of random encounters with people that are connected to me or people I know like the time my boyfriend from Richmond Virginia met my roommate while I lived in Greensboro North Carolina.

When my boyfriend found out my roommate was from the South Bend Indiana area originally they figured out that one of his best friends who he met through an ex-girlfriend from a completely different part of Indiana had gone to high school with my roommate. Yeah - try and follow that geography.

I think the idea that we are all connected by six degrees is intriguing especially with the connectedness we share now with social media sites.

If we could count encounters that we do not necessarily remember like the person might have been our server or we might have been at the same conference then I am more apt to believe it could be true - otherwise I am with @indemnifyme - I am going to need more proof!

By bluespirit — On Aug 14, 2011

@speechie - I have played that game as well. It is great for killing time in a fun way. Although I sadly tend to lose because I can never remember names, so I am trying to give answers like Matt Damon was in that movie about stealing from Casinos with Brad Pitt (who could forget his name) who was in that chic criminal movie with the woman who was married to Tim Robbins...

Needless to say, my answers are usually not accepted. But I did want to mention you forgot an important detail to the game - you have to be able connect to Kevin Bacon by at least the 6 person, otherwise the game would be as many degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon that you can think of.

By Speechie — On Aug 14, 2011

@anon22581 - I have not encountered anything that has said "yes this theory is true."

I have heard of another form of the idea, this on is more of a fun game to play while in the car on long road trips. It is called 6 degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon. One person chooses an actor or actress and the rest of the car (or just one person - depending on how you want to do the scoring) has to connect the actor through other actors they have played with.

So for example is someone said "Matt Damon" you would have to connect him to Kevin Bacon.

Here's what the connection could look like: Matt Damon was in Ocean's 11 with Brad Pitt, Brad Pitt was in Thelma and Louise with Susan Sarandon, Susan Sarandon was in Dead Man Walking with Sean Penn, and Sean Penn was in Mystic River with Kevin Bacon.

The way we play is you that you get a point if you stump the rest of the car. The person with the most points wins.

By indemnifyme — On Aug 13, 2011

@Monika - I'm not sure if your examples prove that everyone in the world is connected by six degrees. After all the examples you've listed makes sense if everyone is in the same geographic area. Did you all go to the same college or something?

To say that I'm connected to a random stranger all the way across the world by six people? I'd like some concrete proof!

By Monika — On Aug 13, 2011

I think this theory probably hold true. I think it would be interesting if someone did a study using social networking.

I find out people I know on Facebook know each other all the time! When I go on someones page and look at the "mutual friends" section, sometimes the results are surprising. For example, when my boyfriend and I first met, I discovered he was friends with a girl I went to church with when I was younger, and his roommate had dated my former neighbor.

I could list more examples like this, but I think my point has been made. The world is small, and the internet makes it smaller!

By anon22581 — On Dec 06, 2008

Has anyone encounter such a thing that can say "yes this theory is true"?

By pocurana — On Aug 02, 2008

Microsoft conducted a study in 2008 too that supported this theory. They used instant messaging instead of email, I think. But I wonder if the study is inherently flawed by only focusing on the subset of people that use electronic modes of communication.

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