# Measures of Central Tendency

## Introduction

A measure of central tendency is a single 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, median and mode are all valid measures of central tendency, but under different conditions, some measures of central tendency become more appropriate to use than others. In the following sections, we will look at the mean, mode and median, and learn how to calculate them and under what conditions they are most appropriate to be used.

## Mean (Arithmetic)

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 (see our Types of Variable guide for data types). 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 \( x_1, x_2, \) …\(, x_n \), the sample mean, usually denoted by \( \overline{x} \) (pronounced "x bar"), is:

$$ \overline{x} = {{x_1 + x_2 + \dots + x_n}\over{n}} $$

This formula is usually written in a slightly different manner using the Greek capitol letter, \( \sum \), pronounced "sigma", which means "sum of...":

$$ \overline{x} = {{\sum{x}}\over{n}} $$

You may have noticed that the above formula refers to the sample mean. So, why have we called it a sample mean? This is because, in statistics, samples and populations have very different meanings and these differences are very important, even if, in the case of the mean, they are calculated in the same way. To acknowledge that we are calculating the population mean and not the sample mean, we use the Greek lower case letter "mu", denoted as \( \mu \):

$$ \mu = {{\sum{x}}\over{n}} $$

The mean is essentially a model of your data set. It is the value that is most common. You will notice, however, that the mean is not often one of the actual values that you have observed in your data set. However, one of its important properties is that it minimises error in the prediction of any one value in your data set. That is, it is the value that produces the lowest amount of error from all other values in the data set.

An important property of the mean is that it includes every value in your data set as part of the calculation. In addition, the mean is the only measure of central tendency where the sum of the deviations of each value from the mean is always zero.