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Statistical signicance

Statistical signicance is the low probability of obtain-

ing at least as extreme results given that the null hy-
pothesis is true.
It is an integral part of
statistical hypothesis testing where it helps investigators
to decide if a null hypothesis can be rejected.
In any
experiment or observation that involves drawing a sample
from a population, there is always the possibility that an
observed eect would have occurred due to sampling er-
ror alone.
But if the probability of obtaining at least
as extreme result (large dierence between two or more
sample means), given the null hypothesis is true, is less
than a pre-determined threshold (e.g. 5% chance), then
an investigator can conclude that the observed eect ac-
tually reects the characteristics of the population rather
than just sampling error.
The present-day concept of statistical signicance orig-
inated from Ronald Fisher when he developed statisti-
cal hypothesis testing in the early 20th century.
These tests are used to determine whether the outcome
of a study would lead to a rejection of the null hypothesis
based on a pre-specied low probability threshold called
p-values, which can help an investigator to decide if a re-
sult contains sucient information to cast doubt on the
null hypothesis.
P-values are often coupled to a signicance or alpha ()
level, which is also set ahead of time, usually at 0.05
Thus, if a p-value was found to be less than 0.05,
then the result would be considered statistically signi-
cant and the null hypothesis would be rejected.
signicance levels, such as 0.1 or 0.01, are also used, de-
pending on the eld of study.
In statistics, statistical signicance is not the same as re-
search, theoretical, or practical signicance.
1 History
Main article: History of statistics
The concept of statistical signicance was originated by
Ronald Fisher when he developed statistical hypothesis
testing, which he described as tests of signicance,
in his 1925 publication, Statistical Methods for Research
Fisher suggested a probability of one in
twenty (0.05) as a convenient cutolevel to reject the null
In their 1933 paper, Jerzy Neyman and
Egon Pearson recommended that the signicance level
(e.g. 0.05), which they called , be set ahead of time,
prior to any data collection.
Despite his initial suggestion of 0.05 as a signicance
level, Fisher did not intend this cuto value to be xed,
and in his 1956 publication Statistical methods and scien-
tic inference he recommended that signicant levels be
set according to specic circumstances.
2 Role in statistical hypothesis test-
Main articles: Statistical hypothesis testing, Null hypoth-
esis, p-value and Type I and type II errors
Statistical signicance plays a pivotal role in statistical
In a two-tailed test, the rejection region or level is partitioned
to both ends of the sampling distribution and make up only 5%
of the area under the curve.
hypothesis testing, where it is used to determine if a null
hypothesis should be rejected or retained. A null hypoth-
esis is the general or default statement that nothing hap-
pened or changed.
For a null hypothesis to be rejected
as false, the result has to be identied as being statisti-
cally signicant, i.e. unlikely to have occurred by chance
To determine if a result is statistically signicant, a re-
searcher would have to calculate a p-value, which is the
probability of observing an eect given that the null hy-
pothesis is true.
The null hypothesis is rejected if the p-
value is less than the signicance or level. The level is
the probability of rejecting the null hypothesis given that
it is true (type I error) and is most often set at 0.05 (5%).
If the level is 0.05, then the conditional probability of a
type I error, given that the null hypothesis is true, is 5%.
Then a statistically signicant result is one in which the
observed p-value is less than 5%, which is formally writ-
ten as p < 0.05.
If an observed p-value is not lower than the signicance
level, then rather than simply accepting the null hypoth-
esis, where feasible it would often be appropriate to in-
crease the sample size of the study, and see if the signif-
icance level is reached.
If the level is set at 0.05, it means that the rejection re-
gion comprises 5% of the sampling distribution.
5% can be allocated to one side of the sampling distri-
bution as in a one-tailed test or partitioned to both sides
of the distribution as in a two-tailed test, with each tail
(or rejection region) containing 2.5% of the distribution.
One-tailed tests are more powerful than two-tailed tests,
as a null hypothesis can be rejected with a less extreme
3 Dening signicance in terms of
sigma ()
Main articles: Standard deviation and Normal distribu-
In specic elds such as particle physics and
manufacturing, statistical signicance is often ex-
pressed in multiples of the standard deviation or sigma
() of a normal distribution, with signicance thresholds
set at a much stricter level (e.g. 5).
For instance,
the certainty of the Higgs boson particles existence was
based on the 5 criterion, which corresponds to a p-value
of about 1 in 3.5 million.
4 Eect size
Main article: Eect size
Researchers focusing solely on whether their results are
statistically signicant might report ndings that are not
necessarily substantive.
To gauge the research signif-
icance of their result, researchers are also encouraged to
report the eect size along with p-values (in cases where
the eect being tested for is dened in terms of an eect
size): the eect size quanties the strength of an eect,
such as the distance between two means or the correlation
between two variables.
5 See also
A/B testing
ABX test
Condence level, the complement of the signi-
cance level
Eect size
Fishers method for combining independent tests of
Look-elsewhere eect
Texas sharpshooter fallacy (gives examples of tests
where the signicance level was set too high)
Reasonable doubt
Statistical hypothesis testing
6 References
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tests. Nature Methods (Nature Publishing Group) 10
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Retrieved 3 July 2014.
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[26] Carver, Ronald P. (1978). The Case Against Statistical
Signicance Testing. Harvard Educational Review 48:
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7 Further reading
Ziliak, Stephen, and McCloskey, Deirdre, (2008).
The Cult of Statistical Signicance: How the Stan-
dard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives. Ann
Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2009.
Thompson, Bruce, (2004). The signicance cri-
sis in psychology and education. Journal of Socio-
Economics, 33, pp. 607613.
Chow, Siu L., (1996). Statistical Signicance: Ra-
tionale, Validity and Utility, Volume 1 of series In-
troducing Statistical Methods, Sage Publications Ltd,
ISBN 978-0-7619-5205-3 argues that statistical
signicance is useful in certain circumstances.
Kline, Rex, (2004). Beyond Signicance Testing:
Reforming Data Analysis Methods in Behavioral Re-
search Washington, DC: American Psychological
8 External links
The article "Earliest Known Uses of Some of the
Words of Mathematics (S)" contains an entry on Sig-
nicance that provides some historical information.
"The Concept of Statistical Signicance Testing"
(February 1994): article by Bruce Thompon hosted
by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and
Evaluation, Washington, D.C.
"What does it mean for a result to be statistically
signicant"?" (no date): an article from the Statis-
tical Assessment Service at George Mason Univer-
sity, Washington, D.C.
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