The Australian Small Business Blog

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Six Degrees of Separation Myth

WHAT DO SANTA CLAUS, the Easter Bunny, and six degrees of separation have in common? The answer is - people all around the world believe in them. But, since I don't wish to do an expose on Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, I'm going to leave those icons alone. I want to talk about the six degrees of separation idea. This is the widely held belief that we are all connected to each other through, at most, six intermediary connections or people.

I'm sorry to be'the bearer of bad tidings, but it's just not true. In fact, it is a widespread urban legend. I know, I know - you're thinking, "What? That can't be! It's common knowledge that we are all separated by six connections to anyone in the world." Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but the idea that we are all connected through six degrees of separation is rooted in myth.

The legend originally stems from several 'small world experiments' conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and '70s. These experiments involved sending folders or letters from a group of people in one part of the country to a specific person (whom they did not know) in another part of the country. The people were told to get the material to someone who might know someone who would know the individual to whom the material was to be delivered to. This process formed a chain of connections linking the people together.

It was, in fact, found that the letters or folders, which eventually arrived in the right person's hands, took, on average, between five and six connections or degrees. This part is true; however, if you look closer, you will discover the problems that exist within the blanket statement that 'we are all connected by six degrees.'

First off, though the average number of links for people who got the material through to the final contact was five or six connections, the majority of the connections that were made ranged from two to ten (the average was five to six), This means that roughly half took more than six and roughly half less than six. Well, you say, that's the average and I would agree that there's nothing wrong with addressing this concept by the average, but there's one small problem. The overwhelming majority of people in all of Milgram's studies never got the material to the intended recipient at all!

In Milgram's most successful study, "217 chains were started and 64 were completed - a success rate of only 29per cent." That's right - a success rate of less than one third of the participants! So, what this means is that 29 per cent of the people in Milgram's most successful study were separated on average by six degrees from the final contact person. However, that means that 71 per cent were not connected at all!

But wait, I'm afraid it gets worse. This was Milgram's most successful study. In another of his studies, only five per cent of the participants completed the chain, which means that 95 per cent of thepeople in the study never made the link to the person they were supposed to connect to at all - ever!

So, why would I, someone who has devoted most of his professional career to business networking, be telling everyone about the Achilles heel of this iconic concept upon which a lot of networking pros hang their hats?

Well, there are two reasons. First of all, I believe this myth creates complacency. The thought that everyone is absolutely connected to everyone else on the planet by six degrees gives some people a falsesense of expectation and thus lulls them into a sense that the connection is bound to happen sooner or later, no matter what they do.

Secondly, and most importantly, the studies' findings indicate clearly that some people are better connected than others. I believe that's important because it means that this is a skill that can be acquired. With reading, training, and coaching, people can develop their networking skills, increase their connections, and become part of the roughly 29 per cent of people that are, in fact, separated from the rest of the world by only six degrees.

The good news in all of this is that it is possible to be part of the 29 per centthrough education, practice, and training. We can be connected to anyone through the power and potential of networking. In fact, by understanding that, we can setourselves aside from our competition by knowing that being able to make successful connections is not an entitlement. Instead, it is a skill that only some actually develop.

As for the 71 per cent of people who are not connected and yet still believe in the six degrees of separation concept keep the faith. You'll always have Santa Claus.

This article was written by Dr Ivan Misner, the Founder of BNI. (No link available.)

The Australian Small Business Blog

1 comment :

Clarkey said...

I'm relatively new to reading this blog. But I am enjoying the range of topics covered.

On this one.... just another example of the reality that nothing replaces work and effort like work and effort. To be successful you cannot wait and hope that it will just happen or wait for your 'destiny'.


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