One- and Two-Tailed Tests
to Hypothesis Testing, Statistical
In the James
study, Mr. Bond was given 16 trials on which he judged whether
a martini had been shaken or stirred. He was correct on 13 of
the trials. From the binomial
distribution, we know that the probability
of being correct 13 or more times out of 16 if one is only guessing
is 0.0106. Figure 1 shows a graph of the binomial. The red bars
show the values greater than or equal to 13. As you can see in
the figure, the probabilities are calculated for the upper tail
of the distribution. A probability calculated in only one tail
of the distribution is called a "one-tailed
|Figure 1. The binomial distribution. The
upper (right-hand) tail is red.
A slightly different question can be asked of
the data: "What is the probability of getting a result as
extreme or more extreme than the one observed"? Since the
chance expectation is 8/16, a result of 3/13 is equally as extreme
as 13/16. Thus, to calculate this probability, we would consider
both tails of the distribution. Since the binomial distribution
is symmetric when π = 0.5, this probability is exactly double
the probability of 0.0106 computed previously. Therefore, p =
0.0212. A probability calculated in both tails of a distribution
is called a two-tailed probability.
|Figure 2. The binomial distribution. Both
tails are red.
Should the one-tailed or the two-tailed probability
be used to assess Mr. Bond's performance? That depends on the
way the question is posed. If we are asking whether Mr. Bond can
tell the difference between shaken or stirred martinis, then we
would conclude he could if he performed either much better than
chance or much worse than chance. If he performed much worse than
chance, we would conclude that he can tell the difference, but
he does not know which is which. Therefore, since we are going
to reject the null hypothesis if Mr. Bond does either very well
or very poorly, we will use a two-tailed probability.
On the other hand, if our question is whether Mr.
Bond is better than chance at determining whether a martini is
shaken or stirred, we would use a one-tailed probability. What
would the one-tailed probability be if Mr. Bond was correct on
only three of the sixteen trials? Since the one-tailed probability
is the probability of the right-hand tail, it would be
the probability of getting three or more correct out of 16. This
is a very high probability and the null hypothesis would not be
The null hypothesis for the two-tailed test is that π =
0.5. By contrast, the null hypothesis for the one-tailed test is π ≤ 0.5.
Accordingly, we reject the two-tailed hypothesis if the sample
proportion correct deviates greatly from 0.5 in either direction.
The one-tailed hypothesis is rejected only if the sample proportion
is much greater than 0.50.
The alternative hypothesis in the two-tailed test
is π ≠ 0.5. In the one-tailed test it is π ≥ 0.5.
You should always decide whether you are going to
use a one-tailed or a two-tailed probability before looking at
the data. Statistical tests that compute one-tailed probabilities
are called one-tailed tests; those that
compute two-tailed probabilities are called two-tailed
tests. Two-tailed tests are much more common
than one-tailed tests in scientific research because an outcome
signifying that something other than chance is operating is usually
worth noting. One-tailed tests are appropriate when it is not
important to distinguish between no effect and an effect in the
unexpected direction. For example, consider an experiment designed
to test the efficacy of treatment for the common cold. The researcher
would only be interested in whether the treatment was better than
a placebo control. It would not be worth
distinguishing between the case in which the treatment was worse
than a placebo and the case in which it was the same because in
both cases the drug would be worthless.
Some have argued that a one-tailed test is justified
whenever the researcher predicts the direction of an effect. The
problem with this argument is that if the effect comes out strongly
the in the non-predicted direction, the researcher is not justified
in concluding that the effect is not zero. Since this is unrealistic,
one-tailed tests are usually viewed skeptically if justified on
this basis alone.