Even when we find patterns in data, often there is still uncertainty in various aspects of the data. For example, there may be potential for measurement errors (even your own body temperature can fluctuate by almost 1 °F over the course of the day). Or we may only have a “snapshot” of observations from a more long-term process or only a small subset of individuals from the population of interest. In such cases, how can we determine whether patterns we see in our small set of data is convincing evidence of a systematic phenomenon in the larger process or population?
Example 2: In a study reported in the November 2007 issue of Nature, researchers investigated whether pre-verbal infants take into account an individual’s actions toward others in evaluating that individual as appealing or aversive (Hamlin, Wynn, & Bloom, 2007). In one component of the study, 10-month-old infants were shown a “climber” character (a piece of wood with “googly” eyes glued onto it) that could not make it up a hill in two tries. Then the infants were shown two scenarios for the climber’s next try, one where the climber was pushed to the top of the hill by another character (“helper”), and one where the climber was pushed back down the hill by another character (“hinderer”). The infant was alternately shown these two scenarios several times. Then the infant was presented with two pieces of wood (representing the helper and the hinderer characters) and asked to pick one to play with. The researchers found that of the 16 infants who made a clear choice, 14 chose to play with the helper toy.
Correlation does not equal causation: When babies get their first teeth their saliva production increases but this does not mean that increased saliva causes them to get their teeth. [Image: Ben McLeod, https://goo.gl/0EkXpV, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/Toc0ZF]
One possible explanation for this clear majority result is that the helping behavior of the one toy increases the infants’ likelihood of choosing that toy. But are there other possible explanations? What about the color of the toy? Well, prior to collecting the data, the researchers arranged so that each color and shape (red square and blue circle) would be seen by the same number of infants. Or maybe the infants had right-handed tendencies and so picked whichever toy was closer to their right hand? Well, prior to collecting the data, the researchers arranged it so half the infants saw the helper toy on the right and half on the left. Or, maybe the shapes of these wooden characters (square, triangle, circle) had an effect? Perhaps, but again, the researchers controlled for this by rotating which shape was the helper toy, the hinderer toy, and the climber. When designing experiments, it is important to control for as many variables as might affect the responses as possible.
It is beginning to appear that the researchers accounted for all the other plausible explanations. But there is one more important consideration that cannot be controlled—if we did the study again with these 16 infants, they might not make the same choices. In other words, there is some randomness inherent in their selection process. Maybe each infant had no genuine preference at all, and it was simply “random luck” that led to 14 infants picking the helper toy. Although this random component cannot be controlled, we can apply a probability model to investigate the pattern of results that would occur in the long run if random chance were the only factor.
If the infants were equally likely to pick between the two toys, then each infant had a 50% chance of picking the helper toy. It’s like each infant tossed a coin, and if it landed heads, the infant picked the helper toy. So if we tossed a coin 16 times, could it land heads 14 times? Sure, it’s possible, but it turns out to be very unlikely. Getting 14 (or more) heads in 16 tosses is about as likely as tossing a coin and getting 9 heads in a row. This probability is referred to as a p-value. The p-value tells you how often a random process would give a result at least as extreme as what was found in the actual study, assuming there was nothing other than random chance at play.
So, if we assume that each infant was choosing equally, then the probability that 14 or more out of 16 infants would choose the helper toy is found to be 0.0021. We have only two logical possibilities: either the infants have a genuine preference for the helper toy, or the infants have no preference (50/50) and an outcome that would occur only 2 times in 1,000 iterations happened in this study. Because this p-value of 0.0021 is quite small, we conclude that the study provides very strong evidence that these infants have a genuine preference for the helper toy. We often compare the p-value to some cut-off value (called the level of significance, typically around 0.05). If the p-value is smaller than that cut- off value, then we reject the hypothesis that only random chance was at play here. In this case, these researchers would conclude that significantly more than half of the infants in the study chose the helper toy, giving strong evidence of a genuine preference for the toy with the helping behavior.