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Guide: P-Value

A p value helps determine if data results are likely due to chance, guiding the validation of hypotheses in uncertainty but has limitations and requires cautious interpretation.
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Author: Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is an experienced continuous improvement manager with a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and a Bachelor's degree in Business Management. With more than ten years of experience applying his skills across various industries, Daniel specializes in optimizing processes and improving efficiency. His approach combines practical experience with a deep understanding of business fundamentals to drive meaningful change.

Guide: P-Value

When going into the world of statistics, one term you’ll frequently encounter is the “p value.” This guide will help you understand what a p value is, how it is used, and why it is significant in making decisions based on data.

What is a P Value?

What is P Value? The p value is a fundamental concept in statistics that serves as a tool to assess whether the observations in your data can be attributed to chance. Essentially, when you perform a statistical test, the p value helps you understand whether the results you see are statistically significant or just random noise.

When you conduct an experiment or study, you often start with a hypothesis. For example, you might hypothesize that a new drug has a specific effect on a disease. The p value comes into play when you want to test this hypothesis against the standard assumption (the null hypothesis) that there is no effect or no difference—essentially, that the new drug works just as well as no treatment at all.

The lower the p value, the stronger the evidence against the null hypothesis. A low p value indicates that it is unlikely your data would have appeared the way it did if the null hypothesis were true. In contrast, a high p value suggests that the observed data is quite consistent with the null hypothesis, and any differences or effects you see might just be due to random variation.

Step-by-Step Guide on How to Calculate P-Value

Calculating a p value typically involves a few steps, centered around the null hypothesis, which posits that there is no significant effect or difference. The exact method depends on the type of data and the statistical test being used, but the general process remains consistent across different tests.

Step 1: Define the Null Hypothesis

The null hypothesis represents a theory that there is no effect or no difference between groups. For instance, if you’re testing a new drug, the null hypothesis would be that the drug does not change the outcome compared to no treatment.

Step 2: Conduct the Test

You perform a statistical test using your data. This could be a t-test, chi-square test, ANOVA, regression analysis, etc., depending on what is appropriate for your data and what you are trying to compare or predict.

Step 3: Calculation of Test Statistic

Each test involves calculating a test statistic—a number that summarizes the difference between the observed data and what would be expected under the null hypothesis. This statistic takes into account both the magnitude of the difference and the variability in the data.

Step 4: Determine the P Value

The p value is then calculated by determining how likely the test statistic (or one more extreme) would occur if the null hypothesis were true. This involves comparing the test statistic to a distribution (like the normal distribution or t-distribution) that represents the expected behavior under the null hypothesis.

For example, if you perform a t-test to compare the means of two groups, the test statistic calculated will be a t-value. This t-value is then compared against a t-distribution to find how likely a value as extreme as, or more extreme than, the observed t-value would occur if the null hypothesis were correct.

Step 5: Interpretation

You interpret the p value from this calculation. If the p value is very low (typically less than 0.05), it suggests that such an extreme test statistic would be very unlikely under the null hypothesis, thus providing evidence against the null hypothesis and in favor of the alternative hypothesis—that the drug does have an effect, in our example.

This process encapsulates how statistical software or manual calculations can help determine whether the results of your study support your original hypothesis or if they could more likely have occurred by random chance. By understanding how the p value is calculated and what it represents, researchers can make informed decisions about the validity of their experimental findings.

Why is the P Value Important?

The p value is an essential component in the toolbox of statistics used for making objective decisions about data, especially under conditions of uncertainty. This small number packs a significant amount of information about the relationship between the data observed and the hypotheses formulated before data collection.

Decision-Making Tool in Uncertain Conditions

The p value helps to bridge the gap between the theory and the actual data. By providing a quantifiable measure of how extreme the observed data are, assuming the null hypothesis is true, it helps to determine whether the effects seen in the data can be attributed to the specific factors being tested or if they might merely be a result of random variation.

In fields like medicine, psychology, and economics, where decision-making often depends on statistical data, the p value is used to back decisions with a statistical confidence. For instance, in clinical trials, the effectiveness of a new drug is not confirmed merely based on the observed effects in a trial; instead, these effects need to be statistically significant—a low p value under the null hypothesis of no effect confirms that the likelihood of observing such an effect by chance is small.

Guiding Research and Validation

Moreover, p values play a crucial role in research and development by guiding the validation of scientific experiments. They help in verifying or refuting existing theories and in establishing grounds for accepting new scientific knowledge.

Limitations of the P Value

While the p value is a powerful statistical tool, it has limitations that must be considered to avoid misinterpretation of data.

Does Not Indicate Effect Size or Importance

One significant limitation of the p value is that it does not convey the size or importance of an effect. A very low p value indicates that an effect is likely not due to random chance, but it does not tell how large or important this effect is in practical terms. For example, a drug might show a statistically significant improvement over placebo with a very low p value, but the actual improvement in patient health could be minimal—too small to be of any clinical importance.

Probability of the Data Under the Null Hypothesis, Not the Probability of the Hypothesis

It’s also crucial to understand that the p value does not provide the probability that the null hypothesis is true or false. It only measures the probability of observing the collected data, or something more extreme, assuming that the null hypothesis is true. This is a subtle but essential distinction often misunderstood: the p value is not the probability that the null hypothesis is incorrect.

Sample Size Influence

The influence of sample size on the p value is another critical limitation. Larger sample sizes can detect even very small effects as statistically significant, which might not be meaningful in practical applications. This can lead to situations where statistically significant results are not practically significant.

Misuse and Misinterpretation

The misuse and misinterpretation of p values are widespread in scientific communities. The arbitrary threshold of 0.05 for determining “statistical significance” can lead to neglecting what might be important findings if the p value is just above the threshold, or overvaluing marginal results if the p value is just below.


Understanding the importance and limitations of the p value is crucial for correctly interpreting statistical results and making informed decisions based on data. It is essential to grasp that the p value can indicate whether the observed data significantly deviate from what would be expected under the null hypothesis, but it does not measure the probability of the hypothesis being true or false. Recognizing what the p value tells us and what it does not can help mitigate the risks of statistical errors, avoid misinterpretations, and improve the reliability and credibility of scientific research. By carefully considering the context in which p values are used and exploring other statistical measures like effect size and confidence intervals, researchers can provide a more comprehensive understanding of their study’s outcomes.


A: A p value is a measure used in statistics to help determine the significance of your results from a data analysis. It indicates the probability of observing the results given that the null hypothesis is true. A low p value suggests that the observed data are unlikely to have occurred by chance if the null hypothesis were true.

A: A p value is typically considered significant if it is less than 0.05. This threshold means there is less than a 5% probability that the observed results occurred by chance under the null hypothesis. However, the threshold can vary depending on the discipline and the specific criteria of the study.

A: No, a p value does not indicate the probability that the null hypothesis is false. It only measures the probability of observing the collected data, or something more extreme, under the assumption that the null hypothesis is true.

A: Large sample sizes can detect very small differences between groups as statistically significant, even if these differences are not practically important. This means that with large samples, a study might report a statistically significant p value, indicating a difference that has no meaningful impact in real-world applications.

A: When interpreting p values, it’s important to consider the context of the study, including the effect size and practical significance of the findings. It’s also crucial to be aware of potential biases and the sample size, as these factors can influence the reliability and interpretation of the p value. Moreover, reliance solely on the p value without considering the broader statistical and substantive context can lead to misleading conclusions.


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Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website www.learnleansigma.com, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

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