Mathematician claims to have proven the ‘six degrees of separation’ phenomenon is real


  • Path connecting any two people together typically doesn’t exceed six people
  • People aim to make connections with others that will benefit them down the line
  • READ MORE:  Google brings the ‘Bacon number’ directly into its results pages

No matter who you are or where you are from, you are only six acquaintances away from knowing any random person in the world.

The six degrees of separation have been entrenched in folklore since it was first theorized in 1967, but now a study claims to have confirmed the phenomenon.

People naturally seek prominence in social networks, strategically choosing connections that place them in central positions. But forming new relationships can be burdensome, representing a cost, so they constantly have to determine whether the cost is worth some measure of social benefit

People naturally seek prominence in social networks, strategically choosing connections that place them in central positions. But forming new relationships can be burdensome, representing a cost, so they constantly have to determine whether the cost is worth some measure of social benefit

A team of international scientists claims to have proven this phenomenon after determining most people’s objective is not to make many connections but to obtain the right ones.

The researchers took a game theory approach which started with nodes A,B,C, and D, all representing people who, with each round of the game, could choose to make connections with neighbors outside of their networks. 

As they make new connections, the people are conducting cost-benefit analyses in their heads, essentially determining who across those networks is important enough to connect with and how it would benefit themselves. 

The game concludes when people in the game have exhausted the connections they want to make in order to increase their own social standing. At this point, the ‘six degrees’ concept comes to bear. 

Dr Baruch Barzel, one of the paper’s lead authors, said: ‘When we did the math, we discovered an amazing result: this process always ends with social paths centered around the number six. 

‘Each individual acts independently without knowing the network as a whole, yet this self-driven game shapes the structure of the entire network, leading to the small world phenomenon and the recurring pattern of six degrees.’

The 14 researchers involved in the study highlighted that they are from Israel, Spain, Italy, Russia, Slovenia and Chile, yet somehow found their way together to experiment. 

Dr Barzel said: ‘This collaboration is a great example of how six degrees can play in our favor. 

‘How else would a team from six countries around the world come together? This is truly six degrees in action!’

The idea of six degrees of separation was first floated in a short story written by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy in 1929. But the theory received renewed attention when it was picked up by social psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1967, who conducted what he called the small-world experiment.

Milgram supplied people in Nebraska with letters to send to ‘target’ people in Boston. If the Nebraskan knew the Bostonian, the letter would be sent directly. 

But in most cases, the starting person would send the letter to a person in Massachusetts who they think could possibly know that target person in Boston. 

This sets off a chain of sending the letter from one middleman to another until finally reaching the target person.  

The average number of times the letters had to be passed on to reach the broker was six or 6.2, and a new phrase was born. 

His findings were not conclusive though, as the experiment had several flaws. For instance, people became disinterested in the experiment or they lost the envelopes they were charged with mailing. 

The theory has since been tested many times by researchers as well as the everyday Twitter- and Facebook user. The theory has also shot to pop culture prominence with the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon which is based on the idea that every actor in Hollywood is connected to him.

 The team’s findings were published in the journal Physical Review X 



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