Six Degrees of Separation: Fact or Fiction?

'Primetime' Set Out to Uncover Whether the Six Degrees Notion Holds True in Real Life


Dec. 12, 2006 —

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.

When Ward and Schick met for the experiment, "Primetime" told them that they were about to compete. Both were going to try to connect with someone they had never met.

But connecting to that person didn't mean finding them -- that would have been too easy. The challenge was to link up by creating a human chain of contacts that ended with their "target," a man named Petey Pierre.

The Improbable Target

Pierre lives in Bedford Stuyvesant, also known as Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood of Brooklyn that has little in common with the areas Ward and Schick call home. In a region ripe with economic depression, Pierre has been trying to make a name for himself as an amateur boxer.

"Primetime" showed a picture of Pierre to Ward and Schick and asked them a simple question: Do you know this man? Both said no.

"Primetime" showed Pierre a picture of the two people who were about to start searching for him. Though Pierre said Schick "looks like a Spanish guy from 'The Young and the Restless,'" and Ward "is all right looking," he had never them either.

Asked if he thought Ward and Schick could connect with him just by building a chain of their friends and acquaintances, Pierre shot back, "No way, I think it's impossible. It's like 100 degrees of separation right there."

But Ward and Schick were much more optimistic. Each felt sure they could accomplish the task.

According to "Primetime's" rules, the winner of the contest would be the person who connected to Pierre in the fewest number of steps. Was six degrees all that separated them? Were the links fewer or much more? Or was a connection established at all?

What played out in the experiment took both Ward and Schick through surprising twists and turns.