Fred A Levy Haskell (fredcritter) wrote,
Fred A Levy Haskell
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"Six degrees" debunked

I ran across this in one of the books I’m currently reading and thought it rather interesting. Interesting enough, in fact, that I decided to pass it along to you:
  How is it that such unexpected connections [between people] seem to happen as often as they do? In the 1950s, a Harvard University psychologyist named Stanley Milgram wanted to answer this question by determining, on average, how many links it would take to get from any person to any other person in the United States.
( … )
In his most famous study, Milgram found that, for the letters that made it to their target, the median number of intermediate acquaintances from starter to target was five. This result was widely quoted and is the source of the popular notion that people are linked by only “six degrees of separation.”
Later work by psychologist Judith Kleinfeld has shown that the popular interpretation of Milgram’s work was rather skewed—in fact, most of the letters from starters never made it to their targets, and in other studies by Milgram, the median number of intermediates for letters that did reach the targets was higher than five. However, the idea of a small world linked by six degrees of separation has remained as what may be an urban myth of our culture. As Kleinfeld points out,
  When people experience an unexpected social connection, the event is likely to be vivid and salient in a person’s memory…. We have a poor mathematical, as well as a poor intuitive understanding of the nature of coincidence.   
Complexity: A Guided Tour, Melanie Mitchell, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009, pages 227–228.

Tags: book, meme, quotation
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