Six Degrees of Separation: Fact or Fiction?

Most people have heard of the "six degrees of separation" theory -- the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by six links.

But is the notion just a pop culture myth or a fact of life?

See how "Primetime's" experiment played out on "Basic Instincts: The Human Chain" Wednesday, Dec. 13 at 10 p.m. ET.

"Primetime" resolved to find out by conducting a groundbreaking social experiment. With the help of Columbia University professor Duncan Watts, "Primetime" created a test that pitted real people against each other in a race to see who could connect themselves to a random third individual the fastest, and do it in an unusual way.

It's a Small World After All

For a number of years, Watts has studied Network Theory, the scientific field that examines how networks form and how they work in society. Network Theory covers many subjects, including how people interact socially, how diseases spread, how people find jobs, and even how aspects of the World Wide Web operate.

"You may think that you're sort of locked away in your little part of the world," Watts said. "In fact, you're not. Everyone is connected in some way or another."

As widespread as the notion of six degrees has become since it was hatched in the 1960s and has since become the subject of a play and movie, there has been very little effort to try to prove whether the hypothesis is true. Watts himself has led one of the most significant experiments, Columbia's Small World Project.

The Small World Project is carried out online. In the experiment, each participant, or "searcher," is assigned a random "target," one of 18 people around the world. Their job is to link to this person via e-mail. But there's a catch -- they can't just send an e-mail directly to the target, they must connect by creating a human chain.

First, the participant e-mails someone they know. They ask that person to continue the links by e-mailing someone else they know. The hope is to eventually send an e-mail to someone who knows the target personally, completing the chain.

Some 60,000 people from 170 countries have taken part in the experiment. Of the hundreds of chains that have been completed, Watts says the average number of links has been six, supporting the six degrees of separation theory.

But Watts admits there are built-in biases to his work. First, it may be true the majority of most people who participate in the Small World Project are of the same social class, and some say it's easy to connect the searcher with the target if both are college educated or middle class.

Expanding the Experiment

The "Primetime" experiment went beyond the previous limits. With Watts' help, "Primetime" set up the test so that the participants would not just be strangers, but would literally come from different worlds.

To see if people could connect across class, race, economics and geography, "Primetime" started out by locating volunteers who would be at opposite ends of the social spectrum.

Kristina Stewart Ward is the editor of Hampton Style magazine, which chronicles the lives of the rich and famous people who congregate in New York's high society summer playground. She has a home in the Hamptons herself as well as on Manhattan's fashionable Upper East Side.

Darren Schick grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania but now also lives in Manhattan, where he sells expensive china and crystal stemware to some of the nation's top retailers.

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