The theory of the six degrees of separation

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Since the dawn of humanity, people have needed to group in order to survive. From the family groups of prehistory to the current megaurbes with millions of people living in them, our history and development as a species has been due to the collective effort to survive and thrive. And in this effort, each and every one of us is weaving our own network of contacts, which in turn have their own. And to this day, in which we live in a globalized and interconnected society through networks, it is not impossible to think that we could actually get in touch with anyone.

This thought has generated that some researchers have generated different theories that try to reflect the possibility that in fact we are all interconnected. One of the theories that have been handled in this regard is the theory of the six degrees of separation which we will talk about next.

The theory of the six degrees of separation: origin and idea basic

The so-called theory of the six degrees of separation is a theory that states that anyone can be interconnected with any other anywhere in the world through a chain of contacts that does not exceed six people, there being only five points of union between the two.

Although it seems an idea of ​​a globalized world as the current society, the truth is that it is a theory that originates in the proposal for the first time in 1929, being the author Frigyes Karinthy and appearing in his publication Chains (chains, in English).

The original idea makes sense and is viable: we know a large number of people or throughout our day to day (proposing later authors like Watts around a hundred), and these in turn to many others, who in turn will also have many others. In the long run, the number of people interconnected would grow exponentially making it easier and easier for us to find common contacts with the target subject over time, and over time if we wanted to send a message it would be enough to follow this chain

Points of social connection

However, the fact that only six highs are necessary is more difficult to demonstrate. The specific number of "jumps" was the subject of arduous debate until 1967, when the well-known psychologist Stanley Milgram (the same as Milgram's experiment of obedience to authority), made a series of experiments trying to solve the unknown, in what was called "the small world problem" .

In one of them, Milgram provided different random people with a series of letters to be sent to an unknown person in Massachusetts, only through his acquaintances. While many of the letters never arrived, among other things because many participants did not pass them or their contacts did not keep trying, in cases where they did, an average of six steps was counted.

Milgram's experiments in this However, other investigations (and some relatively recent ones, such as one in 2001) may appear to be unrepresentative, which seem to show that the number of jumps needed, although not absolute, on average is still around six jumps.

The theory in the information society: six steps (or clicks) away

Time has passed since the theory was first proposed, and there are many social and technological advances that They have been appearing since then. Among them we can find the appearance of the Internet and social networks which facilitate interaction between people from all over the world. Thus, at present it can be even easier to establish contact between people who are very distant and different from each other.

In addition, the use of these networks allows not only contact, but the calculation of the separation between people: LinkedIn or Facebook They are examples of this. However, the data obtained show that the theory of the six degrees of separation may have evolved with the times, being the distance much smaller at present. For example, a study by the Universitá degli Studi di Milano and several Cornell researchers from 2011 show that the distance between two people on Facebook is 3.74 people .

Other difficulties

No we can stop indicating that although this theory can be relatively sustained, we must bear in mind that there are a lot of variables that can interfere in the specific number of jumps: it is not the same to get in touch with someone from your same city that of another continent, or that has another language.

The difficulty will also vary according to whether the person is more or less known at the popular level, or whether or not he shares a hobby or a job. Another problem is found in the media: today we can generate more diverse contacts thanks to new technologies but those who do not have them do not enjoy that option.

Finally it is different to contact someone in a city that in a town with few inhabitants, and if we go to the extreme we can find much more difficulty in contacting a subject in situations like war, extreme poverty or famine. Or if one of the two extremes (the one that initiates the contact search or the objective of this) is a member of an indigenous tribe or a culture isolated from the rest of the world

The usefulness of this theory

It is possible that the reading this theory may seem interesting at an informative level, but the truth is that it is not just a curiosity: it has its use in multiple sectors.

One of them is that of networks in the world of the company in such a way that it allows to study how to form portfolios of clients and contacts that can facilitate them. Also in marketing and advertising could be applied, when taking into account the formation of chains of contacts when promoting the sale of a service or product. The word of mouth can also be linked to this factor

Finally, we can also find utility to the theory of the six degrees of separation at the educational level: it can be used and taken into account in the face of the transmission of prosocial values, programs of prevention (for example, sex education, drug prevention or prevention of gender violence) or information.


  • Watts, DJ (2006). Six degrees of separation. The science of networks in the access age. Editorial Paidos.

    Emily Harris

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