Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Six Degrees of Fabricated Research Findings

At this point, pretty much everyone knows the theory of Six Degrees of Separation: That everyone in the world somehow connected through a chain of six people. Well, it turns out, the results from the study that supposedly proved the theory were actually fabricated.

The phrase "Six Degrees of Separation" was coined by Stanley Milgram -- the famous and largely controversial social psychologist who conducted studies examining people's obedience to authority by testing how many would administer potentially lethal electric shocks to screaming victims. As the official Milgram website explains it, "He found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts-to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, and this fact was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. But, during the experiment itself, the experience was a powerfully real and gripping one for most participants."

For his famous Six Degrees of Separation study, Milgram asked people to give a letter to other people they knew by name, then he tracked how long it took for each letter to end up in the hands of a person the original sender didn't know in another city. He reported that the average number of people it took to get from the sender to an unknown person was six. Hence, the phrase "six degrees of separation." But apparently no one ever bothered to look into his data, until now:
Judith Kleinfeld, a professor psychology at Alaska Fairbanks University, went back to Milgram's original research notes and found something surprising. It turned out, she told us, that 95% of the letters sent out had failed to reach the target. Not only did they fail to get there in six steps, they failed to get there at all. Milgram was a giant figure in his world of research, but here was evidence that the claim he was famously associated with was not supported by his experiments.
Which means the whole Six Degrees of Separation thing is more science-fiction than actual statistics, much to the dismay of the many the films, plays and books written using Six Degrees as their driving force.

Kleinfeld wasn't exactly happy to discover this: "I was shocked. I was horrified." Apparently other studies were done after his that claimed to find similar results:
none of those matched up to the claim either. In the most recent, two years ago, only 3% of letters reached their target. "If 95 or 97 letters out of 100 never reached their target, would you say it was proof of six degrees of separation? So why do we want to believe this?" "The pleasing idea that we live in a 'small world' where people are connected by 'six degrees of separation' may be the academic equivalent of an urban myth," she says.

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Blogger Stroll said...

I read about this and wondered if most people even know that the theory of "six degrees" was really an actual "study", faked or not. I sure didn't know where the idea originated!

7:54 PM  

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