5.2. Stanley Milgram

Stanley Milgram was an American social psychologist who conducted two of the most famous experiments in social science, the Milgram experiment, which studied people’s obedience to authority and the Small World Experiment, which studied the structure of social networks.

In the Small World Experiment, Milgram sent a package to several randomly-chosen people in Wichita, Kansas, with instructions asking them to forward an enclosed letter to a target person, identified by name and occupation, in Sharon, Massachusetts. The subjects were told that they could mail the letter directly to the target person only if they knew him personally; otherwise they were instructed to send it, and the same instructions, to a relative or friend they thought would be more likely to know the target person.

Many of the letters were never delivered, but for the ones that were the average path length — the number of times the letters were forwarded — was about six. This result was taken to confirm previous observations (and speculations) that the typical distance between any two people in a social network is about “six degrees of separation”.

This conclusion is surprising because most people expect social networks to be localized — people tend to live near their friends — and in a graph with local connections, path lengths tend to increase in proportion to geographical distance. For example, most people’s friends tend to live nearby, so one might guess that the average distance between nodes in a social network is about 50 miles. Wichita is about 1600 miles from Boston, so if Milgram’s letters traversed typical links in the social network, they should have taken 32 hops, not 6.

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