A measure of central tendency is a single representative value that attempts to describe a set of data by identifying the central position within that set of data. As such, measures of central tendency are sometimes called measures of central location. They are also classed as summary statistics. The mean ,often called the average, is most likely the measure of central tendency that you are most familiar with, but there are others, such as the median and the mode.
The mean (or average) is the most popular and well known measure of central tendency. It can be used with both discrete and continuous data, although its use is most often with continuous data. The mean is equal to the sum of all the values in the data set divided by the number of values in the data set. So, if we have n values in a data set and they have values x1, x2, …, xn, the sample mean, usually denoted by (pronounced x bar), is:
When not to use the mean
The mean has one main disadvantage: it is particularly susceptible to the influence of extreme values. These are values that are unusual compared to the rest of the data set by being especially small or large in numerical value. For
Another time when we usually prefer the median over the mean (or mode) is when our data is skewed (i.e., the frequency distribution for our data is skewed).
The median is the middle score for a set of data that has been arranged in order of magnitude. The median is less affected by outliers and skewed data. In order to calculate the median, suppose we have the data below:
We first need to rearrange that data into order of magnitude (smallest first):
Our median mark is the middle mark – in this case, 56 (highlighted in bold). It is the middle mark because there are 5 scores before it and 5 scores after it. This works fine when you have an odd number of scores, but what happens when you have an even number of scores? What if you had only 10 scores? Well, you simply have to take the middle two scores and average the result. So, if we look at the example below:
We again rearrange that data into order of magnitude (smallest first):
Only now we have to take the 5th and 6th score in our data set and average them to get a median of 55.5.
The mode is the most frequent score in our data set. On a histogram it represents the highest bar in a bar chart or histogram. You can, therefore, sometimes consider the mode as being the most popular option. An example of a mode is presented below:
Normally, the mode is used for categorical data where we wish to know which the most common category:
We can see above that the most common form of transport, in this particular data set, is the bus. However, one of the problems with the mode is that it is not unique, so it leaves us with problems when we have two or more values that share the highest frequency, such as below:
We are now faced with the problem as to which mode best describes the central tendency of the data. This is particularly problematic when we have continuous data because we are more likely not to have any one value that is more frequent than the other. For example, consider measuring 30 peoples’ weight (to the nearest 0.1 kg). How likely is it that we will find two or more people with exactly the same weight (e.g., 67.4 kg)? The answer, is probably very unlikely – many people might be close, but with such a small sample (30 people) and a large range of possible weights, you are unlikely to find two people with exactly the same weight; that is, to the nearest 0.1 kg. This is why the mode is very rarely used with continuous data.
Another problem with the mode is that it will not provide us with a very good measure of central tendency when the most common mark is far away from the rest of the data in the data set.
Here the mode is not representative of the data, which is mostly concentrated around the 20 to 30 value range. To use the mode to describe the central tendency of this data set would be misleading.
We often test whether our data is normally distributed because this is a common assumption underlying many statistical tests. An example of a normally distributed set of data is presented below:
When you have a normally distributed sample you can legitimately use both the mean or the median as your measure of central tendency. In fact, in any symmetrical distribution the mean, median and mode are equal. However, in this situation, the mean is widely preferred as the best measure of central tendency because it is the measure that includes all the values in the data set for its calculation, and any change in any of the scores will affect the value of the mean. This is not the case with the median or mode.
However, when our data is skewed, for example, as with the right-skewed data set be we find that the mean is being dragged in the direct of the skew. In these situations, the median is generally considered to be the best representative of the central location of the data. The more skewed the distribution, the greater the difference between the median and mean, and the greater emphasis should be placed on using the median as opposed to the mean. A classic example of the above right-skewed distribution is income (salary), where higher-earners provide a false representation of the typical income if expressed as a mean and not a median.
If dealing with a normal distribution and tests of normality show that the data is non-normal, it is customary to use the median instead of the mean. However, this is more a rule of thumb than a strict guideline. Sometimes, researchers wish to report the mean of a skewed distribution if the median and mean are not appreciably different (a subjective assessment), and if it allows easier comparisons to previous research to be made.
When to use the mean, median and mode
Use this summary table to know what the best measure of central tendency is with respect to the different types of variable.
|Type of Variable||Best measure of central tendency|
|Interval/Ratio (not skewed)||Mean|