Degrees of Connection: Spread the goodness and kindness

Degrees of connection on the slopes

Degrees of connection- Is it really possible to maintain, manage and sustain all the connections we have on Facebook and LinkedIn?….No it’s not.

“In nature, we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else before it, beside it, under it, over it.”

The above quote was from the famous German poet, lyricist, playwright, writer and diplomat, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe: popularly known as just “Goethe”. And nature has produced a remarkable species: us – with full of kindness, goodness, compassion, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice.

These tendencies were so important for our survival, procreation and for smooth functioning of groups. Infact, so vital for human evolution itself, says, Dacher Keltner, from the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory.

It was very interesting to know, when he revealed that the notion “Survival of the fittest” no longer applies and the world has not known the other side of Charles Darwin.  The world has not known Darwin’s works and wisdom on human goodness and emotion. Darwin’s writings that humans are profoundly social and caring species, has not seen much light and so has the world.

Through his new book, “Born to be good: The science of a meaningful life”, Dacher investigates these aspects and brings them to light through his various scientific findings.

The tendencies of goodness and kindness are innate to us as humans.

They are found in our emotions. And through the power of such emotions we will connect to others. And when we connect, our goodness and kindness spreads and it reaches others making a positive impact.

The positive impact we have on others, depends on the degrees of connection we have with our friends. This in other words is the extent of the influence. The more the degrees of connection, the more the influence there is. So in this aspect,

Can we take the help of our influential social networks to spread this goodness and kindness?

Yes, and Social networks does matter in this situation. There are various studies that were conducted around the development of the human brain and on our happiness. When you are associated with more happy and stable people in a social network, the happier you are.

Having said this, the spread of goodness and kindness tends to follow a certain rule. We will talk about it in a little while from now after looking at how our degrees of connection are primordial and what we have learnt from the apes.

We are no different from the apes

Research experiments conducted on the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, prove that we are no different from them. These apes are the old world primates, the only species closely related to humans.

Chimpanzee- Our closest cousin
Chimpanzee- Our closest cousin

Take a walk to any of the nearby Zoo or wild life sanctuary in your area or city.  On any lazy afternoon, you will observe, monkeys grooming each other. They will lie casually on the laps of each other and pick dried leaves and twigs from each other’s hair.  The oxytocin levels in the brains of the giving and receiving monkeys usually shoot up. Oxytocin, are the happy chemicals. They are neuro transmitters. They make us happy and play a huge role in bonding. The same happiness is what is triggered, when you have friendships online and offline.

Incidentally, in a scientific study it shows that, we humans are preoccupied not with the daily activities at work, but with the juicy details of other’s personal lives, during most part of the day. We relish it so much, that even after getting home, we log on to popular social networks, to get connected with each and other and discuss or switch on the TV to know more about it.

Please read our blog post: Social media collaboration- A synergy in the making

We are no different than the apes. The apes do the same. They always keep noticing and minding what other members of their group are doing or not doing all the time.

Robin Dunbar, the British evolutionary anthropologist and psychologist, came up with the idea of social brain hypothesis. He found that the Neo-cortex to the brain ratio is largest in mammals, who are part of large social groups. The neo-cortex is part of the cerebral cortex which connects both the hemispheres and in humans, it is responsible for sensory perception, spatial reasoning, language and motor commands.

According to him, the larger the social group or a social network, a person interacts, the greater the size of the neo-cortex allowing him or her to manage and interact with increasing social members.

The same was tested on a group of monkeys. Some of them were housed together among large numbers of their species and others were kept isolated. After a period of time (about a year), the monkeys were tested. MRI scans of the brain, revealed that there was a growth in the size of the neo-cortex for monkeys who were among other social members.

This region of the brain involved social cognition, group behavior, “theory of the mind”, and predicting other’s behavior. Remarkably, there was 20 % increase in the neo-cortex grey matter of the monkeys, which were housed together than the monkeys which were kept individually.

What we can understand from this is that, the more we are connected in a social network, the more our neo-cortex brain size increases. This is good for us.

But then, the degrees of connection follow a certain rule. There are some factors which limit the size of the individual influence in a social network, there by affecting the extent of the degrees of connection.

The rule is best explained by the concept of “Degrees of influence” coined by two scientists.

The degrees of connection and the spread of influence

The spread of influence in a social network tends to follow a rule called the ‘the three degrees of influence’.  The concept was first proposed by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler in 2007.

So everything we do or interact has an impact on our friends, our friend’s friends (two degrees) and even our friend’s friend’s friends (Third degree). The idea is that, our influence ceases to have an effect beyond this influence of 3 degrees.

It is interesting to note that the three degrees of connection applies to a variety of attitudes and behavior. The diffusion of innovation is one classic example. If someone has new ideas at work. His ideas would influence his manager, his manager’s manager and one more level above them. The ideas would diffuse to three degrees.

Similarly, the same situation can be applied to word of mouth examples as well. There are three different reasons which can be attributed to why the influence is limited.

Factors which limit the size of degrees of influence or connection

The following three factors explain, why there is a limit to the three degrees of connection or influence.

Intrinsic decay explanation:

The first is called intrinsic-decay explanation. This is very much like throwing a stone in a pond. It creates ripples and the ripples wave dissipates as it spreads out. Similarly, our influence also fizzles out, eventually.

It is just like the natural decay that happens to all living creatures with ageing.

Socially, there is fidelity in the information that we transmit like the game of Chinese whispers. The information gets corrupted.

Chinese whispers is a popular game played world over, where members in a group, whisper a small message into the ear of the person next to them and it goes on till the person in the last of the group utters out the message loudly to the rest of the group.

Errors usually occur because of the retelling of the message, as it passes on from one person to another. It is fun and at the same time a good ice breaker for members of a group.

We can understand how information gets corrupted as it gets passed on and there is a decay with time.

Network instability explanation:

This can be attributed to the unavoidable circumstances.

For example: A prime member within a group leaves and ties can be broken. The person, who is two or three degrees away from you may lose a path to reach you.

We have seen this happen all the time within our social networks. If you are using the Linkedin social network, you would notice the first, second and third degree connections.  The degrees of connections are aptly represented in this social network.  Network ties do get hampered, when your contact or a friend who is in the first degree loses connection with you.

A similar feature, but not directly related to Network instability explanation can be seen on Facebook and Whatsapp social networks.

A new feature was implemented by Facebook within the recent years. Even if the leader of the group leaves, the group still remains and a person within the group who was assigned first, takes on the ropes.  This way, the group never dies out. The same feature exists in Whatsapp groups as well.

But then, in these social networks (Facebook and Whatsapp), the structure of the network is quite different unlike LinkedIn.  LinkedIn has three degree of connections for your professional contacts.

So much for people beyond the fourth degree connection, we may not be in a position to influence people who are “3 degrees and beyond”.

Evolutionary purpose explanation:

Humans have always evolved in groups. We have seen these examples in the beginning of our post.  Our history is replete with facts and figures, right from the pre-historic days that we have not lived in large groups. Evolution does not favor us to have connections beyond the ‘fourth degree’. Quite stark!

In our hominid past, there was no one or a group who were four degrees removed from us.  We lived in small clusters, evolved from hunter and gatherer societies.

Robin Dunbar as stated earlier in the post, through his social brain hypothesis, gave us the Dunbar’s number. The Dunbar’s number is the maximum number of individuals in a society or group that someone can have social relationships with. The number is at 150.

There is a cognitive limit on the number of people in a group that we can have connections with. This leaves us to say, that there is a limit on the Neo-cortex grey matter growth. This again proves that even in the past, the friendship influence was within 150 and which does not go beyond the 3 degrees of influence.

Goodness and Kindness: Is what makes us human

Practically speaking, let us be true, how many of us are really able to manage and sustain contacts and interactions beyond a 100 people on your Facebook profile ?.  Some even might have 500+ connections on their Facebook and Linkedin profiles. I have personally seen it. All that will remain mere connections on face value. But the real deal of maintaining and sustaining friendly and fruitful interactions with all of them is simply quite impossible. Just leave alone, the Neo-cortex grey matter growth, to be honest, I have been struggling all along to maintain, just a handful of friends on my Facebook network.

So, even if your degrees of connection are limited to 3 degrees or 3 lengths, it makes good common sense. It makes good common sense, to spread the goodness and kindness to people in your network or your social group. An altruistic behavior of one person has a ripple effect on other people and the rest of the entire social network. It simply spreads!  It is what makes us happy, when we share and bond with others and it is what makes us human. Humans and the apes share a common ancestor 8 million years ago. We have evolved and have come a long way.

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For further resources, please find below

  1.  The brain on Facebook – Scientific American

Six degrees of separation: Are we socially close in a social network ?

Six degrees of separation: The title appears to be straight from a science fiction book, isn’t it? No it is not. It is a concept which is much used and applied world over in all the major social networks from Facebook to Twitter to Linkedin.

The central idea, as simple as it seems, is that all living beings on the planet are connected to each other in six steps or shorter.  It was first introduced by Frigyes Karinthy in the year 1929 and later became popular by a title play (A drama!) of the same name written by John Guare.

To be honest, I was struggling to start this topic. It just wouldn’t simply flow. As Ernest Hemingway once rightly quoted in his books “You just need to sit in the front of the typewriter and bleed”.

So for the question, are we all separated by six degrees?  Yes we are!

To fully understand the six degrees of separation, I would recommend a cursory understanding of giant components of the World Wide Web, the interconnected web links of what makes the internet today and the graph theory.

Useful note: Please read out blog post “The global brain and graph theory”

Roughly, about 5000 years ago, two giant civilizations existed. For all practical purposes, let us take these two civilizations as giant components. One component is the western hemisphere, the Americas land mass and the other one was the eastern hemisphere, the Europe –Asia land mass. These two giant components existed separately until the European explorers reached the American shores and the rest is history.

If you happen to read the book “Guns, Germs and Steel” written by Jared Diamond, the picture is quite vivid. The book had won the Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction and the Aventis prize for the best science book in 1998.

For Everything across the two landmasses had their own independent evolution right from the beginning until the Europeans arrived and the events were cataclysmic. Diseases spread and so did technology and they all overwhelmed each other and interestingly, later, they evolved together.

But now, we live in the modern well connected world. We can envisage this networked world as one single giant networked component. If you are reading this, I am sure you must be having friends and relatives who must have grown up in different parts of the world.  These friends and relatives would in turn have their own parents and their friend’s friends and relative’s friends.

The connections keep going on and yet we all live in the same networked component (the whole world!). People you might not have known before and you might not even known their language but still we all belong to the same networked component. Quite possible indeed. Our whole world becomes one giant networked component. Isn’t it. It is not same as it how it existed 5000 years ago.

Understanding Six degrees of separation

As we move forward in our discussion, apart from the giant networked components there are smaller networked components.These smaller networked components are all connected to each other and infact, the smaller components together make up one giant inter networked component. Using this logic, a technique called ‘Breadth –First’ search was introduced.

The breadth –first technique discovers the distances to connected people, one layer at a time. A layer is built of connected people as in a social network.

Please find the figure below, which depicts the ‘Breadth-first’ approach as well as the small components with layers leading to giant components.

The ' Breadth-First' approach
The ‘ Breadth-First’ approach

In each layer, people are connected to at least one person who is in turn connected to the previous or next layer. This is very much akin to how we have the ‘First level’, ‘Second level’ and ‘Third level’ contacts as in the Linkedin social network.

No wonder, this method is used to calculate in a most efficient way, the distances between people in a social network. Let’s look at how this works and how we can trace out distances between people in a social network.

  1. We first declare all our actual friends and relatives to be at layer 1 or distance 1 (See figure ).
  2. Then we find all their friends (Friend of friends) to be at layer 2 or distance 2.
  3. Then we find all their friends and declare them to be at or layer 3 or distance 3.
  4. (….)

We keep continuing in this way for successive layers, each of which represents the next distance out. This process or method can be applied to any social network which keeps building on layers over layers and all are interconnected.

As depicted in the figure, our Friend’s, Friend’s friends and relatives are  at layer 3 or distance 3, which indicates that the distance between “you” and this layer. It is understood that this layer is 3 lengths away from you.

Going by this logic, the six degrees of separation means, any two unknown persons on the planet are 6 (six) short lengths away from each other.

Six degrees of separation in popular social networks

In 2011, Facebook released a study, where the average distance between its 721 million users at that point in time was 4.74. This was a verified study using probabilistic algorithms on metadata. Interestingly, all its users were connected in a giant component like fashion. Source: Wiki

Linkedin operates in manner where all the users are  separated by distance lengths of First degree, Second degree and Third degree (as shown in the figure above). Each and every user on Linkedin is notified, within his or her profile status page, the degrees of connection they are away from each other.

Twitter’s users create a network by following other users. According to a study, the average distance is 4.67, this indicates that all people on Twitter are just 5 or less steps away from each other.

What do the Researchers say about the Six degrees of separation?

Researchers worldwide have conducted many experiments beyond the formal definition of the “six degrees of separation” and have found something qualitative about these giant connected components and the paths that connect the people are surprisingly short. It is an indeed a small world. This phenomenon is also called the “Small world phenomenon”.

Experimental study on the "six degrees of separation"
Experimental study on the “six degrees of separation”

The first experimental study was performed by “Stanley Miligram” and his colleagues in 1960’s.  Miligram did not have the kind of massive social network domains that exists today. With a meagre budget of $860, he set out to test his idea, that the world is connected through a global friendship network by a short chain of friends.

He randomly selected a batch of 296 people and gave them a set of instructions. He had asked the people to forward a letter to someone, a target. The target was a stock broker who lived in the suburbs of Boston.

He then asked the group of people to forward this letter to people whom they knew based on the first name as quickly as possible.  The instructions contained some personal information, the address and the occupation of the target. Each letter, thus passed through many hands in sequence and in succession and finally zeroed in on the stock broker outside Boston.

There were totally about 64 chains. It took 64 chains in reaching the target and then the median length among them was found to be six(6).  In other words, there were six layers, before it finally reached the target. This was the same number, that 20 years later had the title in Guare’s play.

Another experiment was conducted in 2002 to support the Milligram’s original estimate. Duncan watts and his colleagues set out on a global scale to prove this again. Duncan watts was a physician turned sociologist. Duncan and his colleagues recruited more than 98000 people from all over the world.  He used email as the mode of communication this time.

The set of people were asked to send an email message to specific targets (persons) around the world. They were asked to forward the email to someone whom they knew within their close circles and who might in turn know the targeted person. Each person was randomly assigned to a target from a list of eighteen targets in 13 countries.

Once again, to everyone’s surprise, it took roughly six steps (on average) to get the email to reach the targeted person.

Relevance of six degrees of separation

There are however some questions that need to be asked on the relevance of the six degrees of separation and its usage.  Its applications and usage are widespread through out the world.

One is “How useful are the short paths to people in our society?

After knowing that the short paths exist, does that mean that people are ‘socially’ close to you. These are the caveats that come along, that we need to carry with us. But then, this experiment is crucial in understanding how social networks work.

What we need to understand through these short paths in social networks is that even though we may have six step connections to all the influential people in the world  (for example, our six-step connection to the American president, Barrack Obama) in reality, the case is different and take it at ‘face value’.

But having said that, six degrees of separation concept, benefits us in many ways. One in terms of the potential speed with which information reaches different sections of the people, the potential opportunity it presents for people to connect and understand each other. There are numerous applications both scientific and people centered  that can be evolved going forward.

Another important aspect is to understand other contagions (for example, diseases)  and how quickly it spreads in our society.

For further resources, please go through the following links below:-

  1. An experimental study of the “Small world phenomena” by Stanley Miligram and Jeffrey Travers
  2. Linked :How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means for Science, Business
    and Everyday Life: A book from Albert Barabesi. You can buy online from Amazon !
  3. Six degrees urban myth from Psychology today
  4. Six degree theory tested on Facebook
  5. Six degrees of separation – Fact or fiction – ABC news
  6. Microsoft proves that there are six degrees of separation between us – The Guardian

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