The Six Degree Myth and the 29 Percent Solution

So often in networking, people reference the Six Degrees of Separation theory, claiming that anyone they wish to get in contact is only six people away.

What many fail to realize, however, is that this theory is a complete myth. Networking doesn’t just happen, and relying on your network to bring you to your ideal client without having to work for it won’t help you succeed. The story of the Six Degrees of Separation theory also leaves out one key element of the actual study. Only 29 percent of the participants in the study were able to connect themselves back to the target in six steps. 71 percent were unable to do it.

This is the basis for my book, The 29 Percent Solution, co-written by myself and Michelle Donovan. After watching this video blog, I encourage you to check out the book to learn a couple of key strategies to really expand upon your network.

What strategies do you use to grow your network? Do you find that the myth of the Six Degrees of Separation actually holds true for you? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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3 thoughts on “The Six Degree Myth and the 29 Percent Solution

  1. Hello Ivan,

    Having read, enjoyed and learned a great deal from all of your books, I have to say that the 29% Solution is the one that I find very challenging, in terms of the principle behind the title (the networking tips are terrific!). I completely disagree that the Six Degrees of Separation Theory is a Myth and my reasoning for that is twofold.

    Firstly, I believe that Stanley Milgram’s original experiment was flawed when it comes to disproving the Six Degrees of Separation theory. He sent out packages, randomly, to 160 people and asked them to pass on the package to the ONE person they knew that they thought would most likely be successful in passing on the package to the intended recipient. By doing this, as soon as one person is chosen from our network of contacts, we’ve excluded the rest of them and that can’t possibly make for a sound test or a sound conclusion!

    To test this theory accurately, an identical package should be sent to all of your contacts, and then to all of their contacts and so on. This would involve a huge number of packagaes ….. but it would provide an accurate result. Why?

    Because we just don’t know which of our contacts will be the one that can ultimately connect us to the person we want to connect with!

    This is why, when it comes to networking, you encourage us to be very specific when we ask for referrals and to make that specific request when delivering a 60 second presentation to a group of people. Milgram’s experiment was the equivalent of only asking one just one of the people we know and ignoring the rest. In my opinion, this proves nothing in terms of the Six Degrees theory.

    Secondly, Facebook released a far more comprehensive study in 2011 that involved 10% of the population of the planet (721 million people), rather than just 160 people. They also had the privilige of seeing the big picture – that is, the connections at the 3rd,4th,5th, 6th and more degrees. Connections that the individual can’t possibly be aware of – and they showed that people were actually connected by just 4.74 degrees, on average. This proves that the Six Degrees of Separation theory is certainly not a myth. (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/8906693/Facebook-cuts-six-degrees-of-separation-to-four.html)

    Given the very narrow, very random and yet flawed approach of Milgram’s experiment (at least, when used to prove or disprove the Six Degrees of Separation theory), the fact that 29% of the packages reached their intended destination is an extraordinary result! However, for me, it just doesn’t warrant the conclusion that you’ve made.

    I am a great fan of your work, Ivan, and I’ve learned an enormous amount from you and BNI. Unfortunately, I just can’t get behind you on this one.

    Kindest regards,

    Steve

  2. Thanks Steve, I appreciate you taking the time to send me your comments. Here are my thoughts.

    We agree that the Milgram study is flawed (which really was my primary point regarding the opening of the book). However, I should point out a few things about what you said relating to Milgram. In the study I cite, there were 217 participants and they were not selected randomly. He actually selected the participants from an advertisement that he posted in the local newspaper. He requested people that were “particularly sociable” and selected people based on this characteristic. This clearly creates a bias. He also did several studies – the one I quote in the book was his most successful. The rest had a poorer result.

    I’d like to think that Six Degrees is not a myth however, the Facebook study you mention is flawed on multiple levels beginning with a high-school level math error. The Milgram study found that there was a 5 to 6 person separation between connections. That averages to around 5.5 and they rounded up to six (basic math). If you look closely at the Facebook study, they found that there was a 4.74 average and they actually rounded DOWN to 4! This is such a fundamental error in mathematics that it makes much of the rest of what they published – highly suspect. But wait, there’s more…

    One of the biggest flaws in the study is the process of connections. It assumes that a connection is the same or similar to an actual relationship. I have 5,000 connections on my FB page. That doesn’t mean that I have 5,000 people that I know well enough to ask for a favor OR that they would actually do it for me. Facebook has essentially redefined what a “friend” is so that any contact on a profile – is considered a legitimate personal relationship. According to the Dunbar Study – the true number of contacts that one person can have a meaningful relationship with is around 150 (that can obviously vary from person to person).

    For all the faults of the Milgram study – they definitely got this one issue right. After the first person – the only people that were included in the process were true relationships.

    Here are two articles that talk about the flaws of the Facebook study:

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200203/six-degrees-urban-myth
    http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~chazelle/courses/BIB/big-world.htm

    Microsoft did a similar study and they found that people were connected by 7 degrees (actually 6.6 but they didn’t make the embarrassing error that Facebook made – they rounded up!). The problem with the Microsoft study is similar to the Facebook study in that “instant messaging between two people cannot be considered a substantial marker of a relationship.” Here’s that article:

    http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/08/six-degrees-of-separation-do-we-really.php

    My argument in the book is that it is not the “number” of links but the “quality” of the links that makes a difference. Based on the Milgram study – 29% of the respondents were actually connected by six degrees. The purpose of the book was to explain what things that I thought anyone could do to be part of the 29%. Hence, the 52 Weekly Networking Strategies. When all is said and done – that is the core of the book. It’s the methodology for becoming connected by six degrees regardless of anyone’s study.

    Ivan

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