By Amanda C. Lee
A few days ago, I was playing a trivia game and one of the questions went something along the lines of “Kevin Bacon has a popular game called: four steps; five minutes; or six degrees.” I didn’t know, so I asked my dad, who quickly responded with “six degrees”. I was pretty confused, so he told me to Google the game.
The premise of the game is to choose any actor/actress and see how many co-star-connections it takes to reach Kevin Bacon. If that person co-starred with Kevin Bacon, they have a score of 1 (1 connection). If they co-starred with someone who co-starred with Bacon, the initial individual has a score of 2. This goes on, with the ultimate conclusion that no matter what actor/actress you put in, they can be connected back to Kevin Bacon. For the next hour, I tried to “break” the game, but all of my attempts fell short. Nevertheless, I still find it so fascinating, which is why I chose to write about it today.
The first mention of the six degrees of separation can be traced way back to an essay written in 1929 by a Hungarian author, Frigyes Karinthy. He proposed a theory that came about after a heated discussion with his friends. They devised a game in which they chose a random person and worked their way to decide how they could contact them. For example, Karinthy chose “an anonymous riveter at the Ford Motor Company”. He was able to find a connection in 4 steps. This spurred a series of experiments and word of the theory eventually made its way to Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist.
In 1967, Milgram designed an experiment to test out Karinthy’s theory. In his experiment, packages were sent to hundreds of participants across the United States, asking them to get the package to a Boston divinity school student named Alice. However, they couldn’t simply mail it to her; their task was to give the package to someone in their social circle who might be more likely to know Alice. The next person with the package would do the same. In one case, a wheat farmer had taken on the role as the initial package-holder. He passed it on to an minister in his hometown. The minister then sent it to a colleague in Boston, where it soon reached Alice.
However, there were also many downfalls with this experiment; some simply being a lack of interest. When the package got to a few individuals, they refused to send it, ending the chain altogether. For others, the package got to Alice in north of 8 connections. This may be due to the fact that participants were asked to judge which of their friends would be most likely to know Alice. Thus, it is possible that they were sending the package farther away unintentionally.
I find this whole concept so fascinating! Whenever I go outside, I note how I am probably “connected” to everybody I see. If you think about it, all of your friends’ friends (and so on) are within your six degrees of separation. Ultimately, we’re all connected (even if it takes 5 people in between) and that’s pretty cool to me.