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small world phenomenon


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The finding that two people A and B, chosen at random, tend to be connected by a surprisingly short acquaintanceship chain, A knowing someone who knows someone … who knows B. This helps to explain how rumours and other memes diffuse rapidly through populations. The US psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933–84) determined the typical length of the acquaintanceship chain within the US by providing over 200 participants with the name, address, and occupation of a distant target person and requesting them to send a document folder to someone with whom they were on first-name terms who would be most likely to know the target person. Each recipient along the chain received similar instructions, and the process continued until the folder reached the target person or the chain was broken. Milgram's results, published in the magazine Psychology Today in 1967, showed that, among the 29 per cent of cases in which the folder reached the target person, the median number of intermediaries was five, and the number of steps from the starting person to the target person was therefore six, suggesting that the US is a small world in which there are typically six degrees of separation between people. Milgram also carried out a cross-racial replication of the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1970, with similar results. The phenomenon inspired a play by the US playwright John Guare (born 1938) entitled Six Degrees of Separation (1992), and a film with the same title, released in 1993. [The term was introduced into the social sciences by the US political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool (1917–84) and the Austrian-born US mathematician Manfred Kochen (1928–89) in an article on social networks written in 1958 but not published until 1978 in the journal Social Networks]

Subjects: Psychology.


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