pretty much everyone knows the theory of Six Degrees of Separation: That everyone in the world somehow connected through a chain of six people. What most people don’t know is, the results from the study that supposedly proved the theory were actually bogus …
The phrase “Six Degrees of Separation” was coined by Stanley Milgram — the famous and largely controversial social psychologist who originally conducted the Milgram Shock Experiment, examining people’s obedience to authority by testing how many would administer potentially lethal electric shocks to screaming victims (a study that oddly just repeated his research).
For his Six Degrees of Separation study, Milgram asked people to give a letter to other people they knew by name, then he tracked how long it took for each letter to end up in the hands of a person the original sender didn’t know in another city. He reported that the average number of people it took to get from the sender to an unknown person was six. Hence, the phrase “six degrees of separation.” But apparently no one ever bothered to look into his data, until now:
Judith Kleinfeld, a professor psychology at Alaska Fairbanks University, went back to Milgram’s original research notes and found something surprising. It turned out, she told us, that 95% of the letters sent out had failed to reach the target. Not only did they fail to get there in six steps, they failed to get there at all. Milgram was a giant figure in his world of research, but here was evidence that the claim he was famously associated with was not supported by his experiments.
I guess I’m not really six degrees from Kevin Bacon. How will I sleep now?