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Published in: D. Kaplan (Ed.). (2004). e Sage handbook of quantitative methodology for the social sciences (pp. 391–408).

ousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

© 2004 Sage Publications.

e Null Ritual

What You Always Wanted to Know About

Signiﬁ cance Testing but Were Afraid to Ask

Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch

1

No scientiﬁ c worker has a ﬁ xed level of signiﬁ cance at which from year to year, and in all circumstances, he

rejects hypotheses; he rather gives his mind to each particular case in the light of his evidence and his ideas.

(Ronald A. Fisher, 1956, p. 42)

It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

(A. H. Maslow, 1966, pp. 15–16)

One of us once had a student who ran an experiment for his thesis. Let us call him Pogo. Pogo had

an experimental group and a control group and found that the means of both groups were exactly

the same. He believed it would be unscientiﬁ c to simply state this result; he was anxious to do a

signiﬁ cance test. e result of the test was that the two means did not diﬀ er signiﬁ cantly, which

Pogo reported in his thesis.

In 1962, Jacob Cohen reported that the experiments published in a major psychology journal

had, on average, only a 50 : 50 chance of detecting a medium-sized eﬀ ect if there was one. at is,

the statistical power was as low as 50%. is result was widely cited, but did it change researchers’

practice? Sedlmeier and Gigerenzer (1989) checked the studies in the same journal, 24 years later,

a time period that should allow for change. Yet only 2 out of 64 researchers mentioned power,

and it was never estimated. Unnoticed, the average power had decreased (researchers now used

alpha adjustment, which shrinks power). us, if there had been an eﬀ ect of a medium size, the

researchers would have had a better chance of ﬁ nding it by throwing a coin rather than conducting

their experiments. When we checked the years 2000 to 2002, with some 220 empirical articles, we

ﬁ nally found 9 researchers who computed the power of their tests. Forty years after Cohen, there

is a ﬁ rst sign of change.

Editors of major journals such as A. W. Melton (1962) made null hypothesis testing a neces-

sary condition for the acceptance of papers and made small p-values the hallmark of excellent

experimentation. e Skinnerians found themselves forced to start a new journal, the Journal of

the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, to publish their kind of experiments (Skinner, 1984, p. 138).

Similarly, one reason for launching the Journal of Mathematical Psychology was to escape the edi-

tors’ pressure to routinely perform null hypothesis testing. One of its founders, R. D. Luce (1988),

called this practice a “wrongheaded view about what constituted scientiﬁ c progress” and “mind-

less hypothesis testing in lieu of doing good research: measuring eﬀ ects, constructing substantive

theories of some depth, and developing probability models and statistical procedures suited to

these theories” (p. 582).

1

Author’s note: We are grateful to David Kaplan and Stanley Mulaik for helpful comments and to Katharina

Petrasch for her support with journal analyses.

GG_Null_2004.indd 1 12.04.2007 10:29:09 Uhr

2 The Null Ritual

e student, the researchers, and the editors had engaged in a statistical ritual rather than sta-

tistical thinking. Pogo believed that one always ought to perform a null hypothesis test, without

exception. e researchers did not notice how small their statistical power was, nor did they seem

to care: Power is not part of the null ritual that dominates experimental psychology. e essence

of the ritual is the following:

(1) Set up a statistical null hypothesis of “no mean difference” or “zero correlation.” Don’t specify

the predictions of your research hypothesis or of any alternative substantive hypotheses.

(2) Use 5% as a convention for rejecting the null. If significant, accept your research hypothesis.

(3) Always perform this procedure.

e null ritual has sophisticated aspects we will not cover here, such as alpha adjustment and

ANOVA procedures, but these do not change its essence. Typically, it is presented without naming

its originators, as statistics per se. Some suggest that it was authorized by the eminent statistician

Sir Ronald A. Fisher, owing to the emphasis on null hypothesis testing (not to be confused with

the null ritual) in his 1935 book. However, Fisher would have rejected all three ingredients of this

procedure. First, null does not refer to a zero mean diﬀ erence or correlation but to the hypothesis

to be “nulliﬁ ed,” which could postulate a correlation of .3, for instance. Second, as the epigram

illustrates, by 1956, Fisher thought that using a routine 5% level of signiﬁ cance indicated lack of

statistical thinking. ird, for Fisher, null hypothesis testing was the most primitive type in a hier-

archy of statistical analyses and should be used only for problems about which we have very little

knowledge or none at all (Gigerenzer et al., 1989, chap. 3). Statistics oﬀ ers a toolbox of methods,

not just a single hammer. In many (if not most) cases, descriptive statistics and exploratory data

analysis are all one needs. As we will see soon, the null ritual originated neither from Fisher nor from

any other renowned statistician and does not exist in statistics proper. It was instead fabricated in

the minds of statistical textbook writers in psychology and education.

Rituals seem to be indispensable for the self-deﬁ nition of social groups and for transitions in

life, and there is nothing wrong about them. However, they should be the subject rather than the

procedure of social sciences. Elements of social rituals include (a) the repetition of the same action,

(b) a focus on special numbers or colors, (c) fears about serious sanctions for rule violations, and (d)

wishful thinking and delusions that virtually eliminate critical thinking (Dulaney & Fiske, 1994).

e null ritual has each of these four characteristics: a repetitive sequence, a ﬁ xation on the 5%

level, fear of sanctions by editors or advisers, and wishful thinking about the outcome (the p-value)

combined with a lack of courage to ask questions.

Pogo’s counterpart in this chapter is a curious student who wants to understand the ritual rather

than mindlessly perform it. She has the courage to raise questions that seem naive at ﬁ rst glance

and that others do not care or dare to ask.

Question 1: What Does a Signiﬁ cant Result Mean?

What a simple question! Who would not know the answer? After all, psychology students spend

months sitting through statistics courses, learning about null hypothesis tests (signiﬁ cance tests)

and their featured product, the p-value. Just to be sure, consider the following problem (Haller &

Krauss, 2002; Oakes, 1986):

Suppose you have a treatment that you suspect may alter performance on a certain task. You compare the

means of your control and experimental groups (say, 20 subjects in each sample). Furthermore, suppose you

use a simple independent means t-test and your result is signiﬁ cant (t = 2.7, df = 18, p = .01). Please mark

each of the statements below as “true” or “false.” False means that the statement does not follow logically

from the above premises. Also note that several or none of the statements may be correct.

GG_Null_2004.indd 2 12.04.2007 10:29:11 Uhr

Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch 3

(1) You have absolutely disproved the null hypothesis

(i.e., there is no difference between the population means). ! True False !

(2) You have found the probability of the null hypothesis being true. ! True False !

(3) You have absolutely proved your experimental hypothesis

(that there is a difference between the population means). ! True False !

(4) You can deduce the probability of the experimental hypothesis

being true. ! True False !

(5) You know, if you decide to reject the null hypothesis, the

probability that you are making the wrong decision. ! True False !

(6) You have a reliable experimental finding in the sense that if,

hypothetically, the experiment were repeated a great number of

times, you would obtain a significant result on 99% of occasions. ! True False !

Which statements are true? If you want to avoid the I-knew-it-all-along feeling, please answer

the six questions yourself before continuing to read. When you are done, consider what a p-value

actually is: A p-value is the probability of the observed data (or of more extreme data points), given

that the null hypothesis H

0

is true, deﬁ ned in symbols as p(D |H

0

). is deﬁ nition can be rephrased

in a more technical form by introducing the statistical model underlying the analysis (Gigerenzer

et al., 1989, chap. 3). Let us now see which of the six answers are correct:

Statements 1 and 3: Statement 1 is easily detected as being false. A signiﬁ cance test can never

disprove the null hypothesis. Signiﬁ cance tests provide probabilities, not deﬁ nite proofs. For the

same reason, Statement 3, which implies that a signiﬁ cant result could prove the experimental hy-

pothesis, is false. Statements 1 and 3 are instances of the illusion of certainty (Gigerenzer, 2002).

Statements 2 and 4: Recall that a p-value is a probability of data, not of a hypothesis. Despite

wishful thinking, p(D |H

0

) is not the same as p(H

0

|D), and a signiﬁ cance test does not and cannot

provide a probability for a hypothesis. One cannot conclude from a p-value that a hypothesis has

a probability of 1 (Statements 1 and 3) or that it has any other probability (Statements 2 and 4).

erefore, Statements 2 and 4 are false. e statistical toolbox, of course, contains tools that al-

low estimating probabilities of hypotheses, such as Bayesian statistics (see below). However, null

hypothesis testing does not.

Statement 5: e “probability that you are making the wrong decision” is again a probability

of a hypothesis. is is because if one rejects the null hypothesis, the only possibility of making a

wrong decision is if the null hypothesis is true. In other words, a closer look at Statement 5 reveals

that it is about the probability that you will make the wrong decision, that is, that H

0

is true. us,

it makes essentially the same claim as Statement 2 does, and both are incorrect

Statement 6: Statement 6 amounts to the replication fallacy. Recall that a p-value is the prob-

ability of the observed data (or of more extreme data points), given that the null hypothesis is true.

Statement 6, however, is about the probability of “signiﬁ cant” data per se, not about the probability

of data if the null hypothesis were true. e error in Statement 6 is that p = 1% is taken to imply that

such signiﬁ cant data would reappear in 99% of the repetitions. Statement 6 could be made only if

one knew that the null hypothesis was true. In formal terms, p(D |H

0

) is confused with 1 – p(D).

e replication fallacy is shared by many, including the editors of top journals. For instance, the

former editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, A. W. Melton (1962), wrote in his edito-

rial, “ e level of signiﬁ cance measures the conﬁ dence that the results of the experiment would be

repeatable under the conditions described” (p. 553). A nice fantasy, but false.

To sum up, all six statements are incorrect. Note that all six err in the same direction of wishful

thinking: ey overestimate what one can conclude from a p-value.

GG_Null_2004.indd 3 12.04.2007 10:29:12 Uhr

4 The Null Ritual

Students’ and Teachers’ Delusions

We posed the question with the six multiple-choice answers to 44 students of psychology, 39 lectur-

ers and professors of psychology, and 30 statistics teachers, who included professors of psychology,

lecturers, and teaching assistants. All students had successfully passed one or more statistics courses

in which signiﬁ cance testing was taught. Furthermore, each of the teachers conﬁ rmed that he or

she taught null hypothesis testing. To get a quasi-representative sample, we drew the participants

from six German universities (Haller & Krauss, 2002).

How many students and teachers noticed that all of the statements were wrong? As Figure 1

shows, none of the students did. Every student endorsed one or more of the illusions about the

meaning of a p-value. One might think that these students lack the right genes for statistical

thinking and are stubbornly resistant to education. A glance at the performance of their teachers,

however, indicates that wishful thinking might not be entirely their fault. Ninety percent of the

professors and lecturers also had illusions, a proportion almost as high as among their students.

Most surprisingly, 80% of the statistics teachers shared illusions with their students. us, the

students’ errors might be a direct consequence of their teachers’ wishful thinking. Note that one

does not need to be a brilliant mathematician to answer the question, “What does a signiﬁ cant

result mean?” One only needs to understand that a p-value is the probability of the data (or more

extreme data), given that the H

0

is true.

If students “inherited” the illusions from their teachers, where did the teachers acquire them?

e illusions were right there in the ﬁ rst textbooks introducing psychologists to null hypothesis

testing more than 60 years ago. Guilford’s Fundamental Statistics in Psychology and Education, ﬁ rst

published in 1942, was probably the most widely read textbook in the 1940s and 1950s. Guilford

suggested that hypothesis testing would reveal the probability that the null hypothesis is true.

“If the result comes out one way, the hypothesis is probably correct, if it comes out another way,

the hypothesis is probably wrong.” (p. 156) Guilford’s logic was not consistently misleading but

wavered back and forth between correct and incorrect statements, as well as ambiguous ones that

can be read like Rorschach inkblots. He used phrases such as “we obtained directly the probabilities

that the null hypothesis was plausible” and “the probability of extreme deviations from chance”

interchangeably for referring to the same thing: the level of signiﬁ cance. Guilford is no exception.

He marked the beginning of a genre of statistical texts that vacillate between the researchers’ desire

for probabilities of hypotheses and what signiﬁ cance testing can actually provide. Early authors

promoting the illusion that the level of signiﬁ cance would specify the probability of hypothesis

include Anastasi (1958, p. 11), Ferguson (1959, p. 133), and Lindquist (1940, p. 14). But the

belief has persisted over decades: for instance, in Miller and Buckhout (1973; statistical appendix

by Brown, p. 523), Nunally (1975, pp. 194–196), and in the examples collected by Bakan (1966),

Pollard and Richardson (1987), Gigerenzer (1993), Nickerson (2000), and Mulaik, Raju, and

Harshman (1997).

Which of the illusions were most often endorsed, and which relatively seldom? Table 1 shows

that Statements 1 and 3 were most frequently detected as being false. ese claim certainty rather

than probability. Still, up to a third of the students and an embarrassing 10% to 15% of the

group of teachers held this illusion of certainty. Statements 4, 5, and 6 lead the hit list of the most

widespread illusions. ese errors are about equally prominent in all groups, a collective fantasy

that seems to travel by cultural transmission from teacher to student. e last column shows that

these three illusions were also prevalent among British academic psychologists who answered the

same question (Oakes, 1986). Just as in the case of statistical power cited in the introduction, in

which little learning was observed after 24 years, knowledge about what a signiﬁ cant result means

GG_Null_2004.indd 4 12.04.2007 10:29:12 Uhr

Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch 5

does not seem to have improved since Oakes. Yet a persistent blind spot for power and a lack of

comprehension of signiﬁ cance are consistent with the null ritual.

Statements 2 and 4, which put forward the same type of error, were given diﬀ erent endorse-

ments. When a statement concerns the probability of the experimental hypothesis, it is much more

accepted by students and teachers as a valid conclusion than one that concerns the probability of the

null hypothesis. e same pattern can be seen for British psychologists (see Table 1). Why are re-

searchers and students more likely to believe that the level of signiﬁ cance determines the probability

of H

1

rather than that of H

0

? A possible reason is that the researchers’ focus is on the experimental

hypothesis H

1

and that the desire to ﬁ nd the probability of H

1

drives the phenomenon.

Did the students produce more illusions than their teachers? Surprisingly, the diﬀ erence was only

slight. On average, students endorsed 2.5 illusions, their professors and lecturers who did not teach

statistics approved of 2.0 illusions, and those who taught signiﬁ cance testing endorsed 1.9 illusions.

Could it be that these collective illusions are speciﬁ c to German psychologists and students?

No, the evidence points to a global phenomenon. As mentioned above, Oakes (1986) reported that

97% of British academic psychologists produced at least one illusion. Using a similar test question,

Falk and Greenbaum (1995) found comparable results for Israeli students, despite having taken

measures for debiasing students. Falk and Greenbaum had explicitly added the right alternative

(“None of the statements is correct”), whereas we had merely pointed out that more than one or

none of the statements might be correct. As a further measure, they had made their students read

Bakan’s (1966) classic article, which explicitly warns against wrong conclusions. Nevertheless,

only 13% of their participants opted for the right alternative. Falk and Greenbaum concluded that

“unless strong measures in teaching statistics are taken, the chances of overcoming this misconcep-

tion appear low at present” (p. 93). Warning and reading by itself does not seem to foster much

insight. So what to do?

0

40

80

Psychology

students

(n = 44)

Percent

100

60

Professors

& lecturers

not teaching

statistics

(n = 39)

20

Professors

& lecturers

teaching

statistics

(n = 30)

Note. The percentage refer to the participants in

each group who endorsed one or more of the six

false statements (based on Haller & Krauss, 2002).

Figure 1. e Amount of Delusions About the

Meaning of “p = .01”.

GG_Null_2004.indd 5 12.04.2007 10:29:12 Uhr

6 The Null Ritual

Question 2: How Can Students Get Rid of Illusions?

e collective illusions about the meaning of a signiﬁ cant result are embarrassing to our profession.

is state of aﬀ airs is particularly painful because psychologists—unlike natural scientists—heav-

ily use signiﬁ cance testing yet do not understand what its product, the p-value, means. Is there a

cure?

Yes. e cure is to open the statistical toolbox. In statistical textbooks written by psychologists

and educational researchers, signiﬁ cance testing is typically presented as if it were an all-purpose

tool. In statistics proper, however, an entire toolbox exists, of which null hypothesis testing is only

one tool among many. As a therapy, even a small glance into the contents of the toolbox can be suf-

ﬁ cient. One quick way to overcome some of the illusions is to introduce students to Bayes’ rule.

Bayes’ rule deals with the probability of hypotheses, and by introducing it alongside null hy-

pothesis testing, one can easily see what the strengths and limits of each tool are. Unfortunately,

Bayes’ rule is rarely mentioned in statistical textbooks for psychologists. Hays (1963) had a chapter

on Bayesian statistics in the second edition of his widely read textbook but dropped it in the sub-

sequent editions. As he explained to one of us (GG) he dropped the chapter upon pressure from his

publisher to produce a statistical cookbook that did not hint at the existence of alternative tools for

statistical inference. Furthermore, he believed that many researchers are not interested in statistical

thinking in the ﬁ rst place but solely in getting their papers published (Gigerenzer, 2000).

Here is a short comparative look at two tools:

(1) Null hypothesis testing computes the probability p(D |H

0

). The form of conditional prob-

abilities makes it clear that with null hypothesis testing, (a) only statements concerning the

probability of data D can be obtained, and (b) the null hypothesis H

0

functions as the refer-

ence point for the conditional statement. In other words, any correct answer to the question of

what a significant result means must include the conditional phrase “… given H

0

is true” or an

equivalent expression.

Table 1

Percentages of False Answers (i.e., Statements Marked as True)

in the ree Groups of Figure 1

Germany 2000

United Kingdom

1986

Statement (abbreviated)

Psychology

students

Professors and lec-

turers: not teaching

statistics

Professors and

lecturers:

teaching statistics

Professors and

lecturers

1. H

0

is absolutely disproved

34 15 10 1

2. Probability of H

0

is found

32 26 17 36

3. H

1

is absolutely proved

20 13 10 6

4. Probability of H

1

is found

59 33 33 66

5. Probability of wrong decision 68 67 73 86

6. Probability of replication 41 49 37 60

Note. For comparison, the results of Oakes’ (1986) study with academic psychologists in the United Kingdom are shown

in the right column.

GG_Null_2004.indd 6 12.04.2007 10:29:12 Uhr

Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch 7

(2) Bayes’ rule computes the probability p(H

1

|D). In the simple case of two hypotheses, H

1

and

H

2

, which are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, Bayes’ rule is the following:

p(H

1

|D) =

p(H

1

)p(D|H

1

)

p(H

1

)p(D|H

1

) + p(H

2

)p(D|H

2

)

.

For instance, consider HIV screening for people who are in no known risk group (Gigerenzer,

2002). In this population, the a priori probability p(H

1

) of being infected by HIV is about 1 in

10,000, or .0001. e probability p(D |H

1

) that the test is positive (D) if the person is infected is

.999, and the probability p(D |H

2

) that the test is positive if the person is not infected is .0001. What

is the probability p(H

1

|D) that a person with a positive HIV test actually has the virus? Inserting

these values into Bayes’ rule results in p(H

1

|D) = .5. Unlike null hypothesis testing, Bayes’ rule can

actually provide a probability of a hypothesis.

Now let us approach the same problem with null hypothesis testing. e null is that the person

is not infected. e observation is a positive test, and the probability of a positive test given that

the null is true is p = .0001, which is the exact level of signiﬁ cance. erefore, the null hypothesis

of no infection is rejected with high conﬁ dence, and the alternative hypothesis that the person is

infected is accepted. However, as the Bayesian calculation showed, given a positive test, the prob-

ability of a HIV infection is only .5. HIV screening illustrates how one can reach quite diﬀ erent

conclusions with null hypothesis testing or Bayes’ rule. It also clariﬁ es some of the possibilities and

limits of both tools. e single most important limit of null hypothesis testing is that there is only

one statistical hypothesis—the null, which does not allow for comparative hypotheses testing.

Bayes’ rule, in contrast, compares the probabilities of the data under two (or more) hypotheses

and also uses prior probability information. Only when one knows extremely little about a topic

(so that one cannot even specify the predictions of competing hypotheses) might a null hypothesis

test be appropriate.

A student who has understood the fact that the products of null hypothesis testing and Bayes’

rule are p(D |H

0

) and p(H

1

|D), respectively, will note that the Statements 1 through 5 are all about

probabilities of hypotheses and therefore cannot be answered with signiﬁ cance testing. Statement 6,

in contrast, is about the probability of further signiﬁ cant results, that is, about probabilities of data

rather than hypotheses. at this statement is wrong can be seen from the fact that it does not

include the conditional phrase “… if H

0

is true.”

Note that the above two-step course does not require in-depth instruction in Bayesian statistics

(see Edwards, Lindman, & Savage, 1963; Howson & Urbach, 1989). is minimal course can

be readily extended to a few more tools, for instance, by adding Neyman-Pearson testing, which

computes the likelihood ratio p(D |H

1

)/p(D |H

2

). Psychologists know Neyman-Pearson testing in

the form of signal detection theory, a cognitive theory that has been inspired by the statistical tool

(Gigerenzer & Murray, 1987). e products of the three tools can be easily compared:

(a) p(D |H

0

) is obtained from null hypothesis testing.

(b) p(D |H

1

)/p(D |H

2

) is obtained from Neyman-Pearson hypotheses testing.

(c) p(H

1

|D) is obtained by Bayes’ rule.

For null hypothesis testing, only the likelihood p(D |H

0

) matters; for Neyman-Pearson, the likeli-

hood ratio matters; and for Bayes, the posterior probability matters. By opening the statistical

toolbox and comparing tools, one can easily understand what each tool delivers and what it does

not. For the next question, the fundamental diﬀ erence between null hypothesis testing and other

statistical tools such as Bayes’ rule and Neyman-Pearson testing is that in null hypothesis testing,

only one hypothesis—the null—is precisely stated. With this technique, one is not able to compare

GG_Null_2004.indd 7 12.04.2007 10:29:12 Uhr

8 The Null Ritual

two or more hypotheses in a symmetric or “fair” way and might draw wrong conclusions from

the data.

Question 3: Can the Null Ritual Hurt?

But it’s just a little ritual. It may be a bit silly, but it can’t hurt, can it? Yes, it can. Consider a study

in which the authors had two precisely formulated hypotheses, but instead of specifying the pre-

dictions of both hypotheses for their experimental design, they performed the null ritual. e

question was how young children judge the area of rectangles, and the two hypotheses were the

following: Children add height plus width, or children multiply height times width (Anderson &

Cuneo, 1978). In one experiment, 5- to 6-year-old children rated the joint area of two rectangles

(not an easy task). e reason for having them rate the area of two rectangles rather than one was

to disentangle the integration rule (adding vs. multiplying) from the response function (linear vs.

logarithmic). Suﬃ ce to say that the idea for the experiment was ingenious. e Height + Width

rule was identiﬁ ed with the null hypothesis of no linear interaction in a two-factorial analysis of

variance. e prediction of the second hypothesis, the Height × Width rule, was never speciﬁ ed,

as it never is with null hypothesis testing. e authors found that the “curves are nearly parallel

and the interaction did not approach signiﬁ cance, F(4, 56) = 1.20” (p. 352). ey concluded that

this and similar results would support the Height + Width rule and disconﬁ rm the multiplying

rule. In Anderson’s (1981) words, “Five-year-olds judge area of rectangles by an adding, Height +

Width rule” (p. 33).

Testing a null, however, is a weak argument if one has some ideas about the subject matter, as

Anderson and Cuneo (1978) did. So let us derive the actual predictions of both of their hypotheses

for their experimental design (for details, see Gigerenzer & Murray, 1987). Figure 2 shows the

prediction of the Height + Width rule and that of the Height × Width rule. ere were eight pairs

of rectangles, shown by the two curves. Note that the middle segment (the parallel lines) does not

diﬀ erentiate between the two hypotheses, as the left and the right segments do. us, only these

two segments are relevant. Here, the Height + Width rule predicts parallel curves, whereas the

Height × Width rule predicts converging curves (from left to right). One can see that the data (top

panel) actually show the pattern predicted by the multiplying rule and that the curves converge

even more than predicted. If either of the two hypotheses is supported by the data, then it is the

multiplying rule (this was supported by subsequent experimental research in which the predictions

of half a dozen hypotheses were tested; see Gigerenzer & Richter, 1990). Nevertheless, the null ritual

misled the researchers into concluding that the data would support the Height + Width rule.

Why was the considerable deviation from the prediction of the Height + Width rule not statis-

tically signiﬁ cant? One reason was the large amount of error in the data: Asking young children to

rate the joint area of two rectangles produced highly unreliable responses. is contributed to the

low power of the statistical tests, which was consistently below 10% (Gigerenzer & Richter, 1990)!

at is, the experiments were set up so that the chance of accepting the Height × Width rule if it

is true was less than 1 in 10.

But doesn’t the alternative hypothesis always predict a signiﬁ cant result? As Figure 2 illustrates,

this is not the case. Even if the data had coincided exactly with the prediction of the multiplying

rule, the result would not have been signiﬁ cant (because the even larger deviation of the actual data

was not signiﬁ cant either). In general, a hypothesis predicts a value or a curve but not signiﬁ cance

or nonsigniﬁ cance. e latter is the joint product of several factors that have little to do with the

hypothesis, including the number of participants, the error in the data, and the statistical power.

GG_Null_2004.indd 8 12.04.2007 10:29:12 Uhr

Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch 9

is example is not meant as a critique of speciﬁ c authors but as an illustration of how routine

null hypothesis testing can hurt. It teaches two aspects of statistical thinking that are alien to the

null ritual. First, it is important to specify the predictions of more than one hypothesis. In the pres-

ent case, descriptive statistics and mere eyeballing would have been better than the null ritual and

analysis of variance. Second, good statistical thinking is concerned with minimizing the real error

in the data, and this is more important than a small p-value. In the present case, a small error can

be achieved by asking children for paired comparisons—which of two rectangles (chocolate bars)

is larger? Unlike ratings, comparative judgments generate highly reliable responses, clear individual

diﬀ erences, and allow researchers to test hypotheses that cannot be easily expressed in the “main-

eﬀ ect plus interaction” language of analysis of variance (Gigerenzer & Richter, 1990).

Question 4: Is the Level of Signiﬁ cance the Same ing as Alpha?

Let us introduce Dr. Publish-Perish. He is the average researcher, a devoted consumer of statistical

methods. His superego tells him that he ought to set the level of signiﬁ cance before an experiment

is performed. A level of 1% would be impressive, wouldn’t it? Yes, but … there is a dilemma. He

fears that the p-value calculated from the data could turn out slightly higher, such as 1.1%, and he

would then have to report a nonsigniﬁ cant result. He does not want to take that risk. en there

is the option of setting the level at a less impressive 5%. But what if the p-value turned out to be

smaller than 1% or even .1%? en he would regret his decision deeply because he would have to

Size of second

rectangle

Children’s rating of joint area

10 × 8

6 × 5

10 × 8

6 × 5

10 × 8

6 × 5

Actual data

Height × Width

Height + Width

7 × 7

7 × 11 11 × 7 11 × 11

Irrelevant

curve segment

Size of first rectangle

Note. Anderson and Cuneo (1978) asked which of

two hypotheses, Height + Width or Height × Width,

describes young children’s judgments of the joint

area of rectangle pairs. Following null hypothesis

testing, they identified the Height + Width rule with

nonsignificance of the linear interaction in an analysis

of variance and the Height × Width rule with a

significant interaction. The result was not significant;

the Height × Width rule was rejected and the

Height + Width rule accepted. When one inste

a

specifies the predictions of both hypotheses

(Gigerenzer & Murray, 1987), the Height + Width rule

predicts the parallel curves, and the Height × Width

rule predicts the converging curves. One can see

that the data are actually closer to the pattern predicted

by the Height × Width rule (see text).

Figure 2. How to Draw the Wrong Conclusions

by Using Null Hypothesis Testing.

GG_Null_2004.indd 9 12.04.2007 10:29:13 Uhr

10 The Null Ritual

report this result as p < .05. He does not like that either. So he thinks the only choice left is to cheat

a little and disobey his superego. He waits until he has seen the data, rounds the p-value up to the

next conventional level, and reports that the result is signiﬁ cant at p < .001, .01, or .05, whatever is

next. at smells of deception, and his superego leaves him with feelings of guilt. But what should

he do when everyone else seems to play this little cheating game?

Dr. Publish-Perish does not know that his moral dilemma is caused by a mere confusion, a

product of textbook writers who failed to distinguish the three main interpretations of the level of

signiﬁ cance and mixed them all up.

Interpretation 1: Mere Convention

So far, we have mentioned only in passing the statisticians who have created and shaped the ideas

we are talking about. Similarly, most statistical textbooks for psychology and education are generally

mute about these eminent people and their ideas, which is remarkable for a ﬁ eld where authors are

cited compulsively, and no shortage of competing theories exists.

e ﬁ rst person to introduce is Sir Ronald A. Fisher (1890–1962), one of the most inﬂ uen-

tial statisticians ever, who also made ﬁ rst-rate contributions to genetics and was knighted for his

achievements. Fisher spent most of his career at University College, London, where he held the

chair of eugenics. His publications include three books on statistics. For psychology, the most

inﬂ uential of these was the second one, The Design of Experiments, ﬁ rst published in 1935. In the

Design, Fisher suggested that we think of the level of signiﬁ cance as a convention: “It is usual and

convenient for experimenters to take 5 per cent as a standard level of signiﬁ cance, in the sense that

they are prepared to ignore all results which fail to reach this standard” (p. 13). Fisher’s assertion

that 5% (in some cases, 1%) is a convention to be adopted by all experimenters and in all experi-

ments, whereas nonsigniﬁ cant results are to be ignored, became part of the null ritual. For instance,

the 1974 Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association instructed experimenters to

make mechanical decisions using a conventional level of signiﬁ cance:

Caution: Do not infer trends from data that fail by a small margin to meet the usual levels of signiﬁ cance.

Such results are best interpreted as caused by chance and are best reported as such. Treat the result section

like an income tax return. Take what’s coming to you, but no more. (p. 19; this passage was deleted in the

3rd edition [American Psychological Association, 1983])

In a recent defense of what he calls NHSTP (null hypothesis signiﬁ cance testing procedure), Chow

(1998) still proclaims that null hypothesis tests should be interpreted mechanically, using the con-

ventional 5% level of signiﬁ cance. is view reminds us of a maxim regarding the critical ratio, the

predecessor of the signiﬁ cance level: “A critical ratio of three, or no Ph.D.”

Interpretation 2: Alpha

e second eminent person we would like to introduce is the Polish mathematician Jerzy Neyman,

who worked with Egon S. Pearson (the son of Karl Pearson) at University College in London and

later, when the tensions between Fisher and himself grew too heated, moved to Berkeley, California.

Neyman and Pearson criticized Fisher’s null hypothesis testing for several reasons, including that

no alternative hypothesis is speciﬁ ed, which in turn does not allow computation of the probability

! of wrongly rejecting the alternative hypothesis (Type II error) or of the power of the test (1 – !)

(Gigerenzer et al., 1989, chap. 3). In Neyman-Pearson theory, the meaning of a level of signiﬁ cance

GG_Null_2004.indd 10 12.04.2007 10:29:13 Uhr

Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch 11

such as 3% is the following: If the hypothesis H

1

is correct, and the experiment is repeated many

times, the experimenter will wrongly reject H

1

in 3% of the cases. Rejecting the hypothesis H

1

if it

is correct is called a Type I error, and the probability of rejecting H

1

if it is correct is called alpha (").

Neyman and Pearson insisted that one must specify the level of signiﬁ cance before the experiment

to be able to interpret it as ". e same holds for !, which is the rate of rejecting the alternative

hypothesis H

2

if it is correct (Type II error). Here we get the second classical interpretation of the

level of signiﬁ cance: the error rate ", which is determined before the experiment, albeit not by

mere convention but by cost-beneﬁ t calculations that strike a balance between ", !, and sample

size n (Cohen, 1994).

Interpretation 3: e Exact Level of Signiﬁ cance

Fisher had second thoughts about his proposal of a conventional level and stated these most clearly

in the mid-1950s. In his last book, Statistical Methods and Scientiﬁ c Inference (1956, p. 42), Fisher

rejected the use of a conventional level of signiﬁ cance and ridiculed this practice as “absurdly aca-

demic” (see epigram). Fisher’s primary target, however, was the interpretation of the level of signiﬁ -

cance as ", which he rejected as unscientiﬁ c. In science, Fisher argued, unlike in industrial quality

control, one does not repeat the same experiment again and again, as is assumed in Neyman and

Pearson’s interpretation of the level of signiﬁ cance as an error rate in the long run. What researchers

should do instead, according to Fisher’s second thoughts, is publish the exact level of signiﬁ cance,

say, p = .02 (not p < .05), and communicate this result to their fellow researchers.

us, the phrase level of signiﬁ cance has three meanings:

(1) the conventional level of significance, a common standard for all researchers (early Fisher);

(2) the " level, that is, the relative frequency of wrongly rejecting a hypothesis in the long run if it is

true, to be decided jointly with ! and the sample size before the experiment and independently

of the data (Neyman & Pearson);

(3) the exact level of significance, calculated from the data after the experiment (late Fisher).

e basic diﬀ erence is this: For Fisher, the exact level of signiﬁ cance is a property of the data, that

is, a relation between a body of data and a theory; for Neyman and Pearson, " is a property of the

test, not of the data. Level of signiﬁ cance and " are not the same thing. e practical consequences

are straightforward:

(1) Conventional level: You specify only one statistical hypothesis, the null. You always use the

5% level and report whether the result is signiﬁ cant or not; that is, you report p < .05 or p > .05,

just like in the null ritual. If the result is signiﬁ cant, you reject the null; otherwise, you do not draw

any conclusion. ere is no way to conﬁ rm the null hypothesis. e decision is asymmetric.

(2) Alpha level: You specify two statistical hypotheses, H

1

and H

2

, to be able to calculate the

desired balance between ", !, and the sample size n. If the result is signiﬁ cant (i.e., if it falls within

the alpha region), the decision is to reject H

1

and to act as if H

2

were true; otherwise, the decision

is to reject H

2

and to act as if H

1

were true. (We ignore here, for simplicity, the option of a region

of indecision.) For instance, if " = ! = .10, then it does not matter whether the exact level of sig-

niﬁ cance is .06 or .001. e level of signiﬁ cance has no inﬂ uence on ". Unlike in null hypothesis

testing with a conventional level, the decision is symmetric.

(3) Exact level of signiﬁ cance: You calculate the exact level of signiﬁ cance from the data. You

report, say, p = .051 or p = .048. You do not use statements of the type “p < .05” but report the

exact (or rounded) value. ere is no decision involved. You communicate information; you do

not make yes-no decisions.

GG_Null_2004.indd 11 12.04.2007 10:29:13 Uhr

12 The Null Ritual

ese three interpretations of the level of signiﬁ cance are conﬂ ated in most textbooks used in

psychology and education. is confusion is a direct consequence of the sour fact that these text-

books do not teach the toolbox and competing statistical theories but instead only one apparently

monolithic form of “statistics”—a mishmash that does not exist in statistics proper (Gigerenzer,

1993, 2000).

Now let us go back to Dr. Publish-Perish and his moral conﬂ ict. His superego demands that

he specify the level of signiﬁ cance before the experiment. We now understand that this doctrine is

part of the Neyman-Pearson theory. His ego personiﬁ es Fisher’s theory of calculating the exact level

of signiﬁ cance from the data but is conﬂ ated with Fisher’s earlier idea of making a yes-no decision

based on a conventional level of signiﬁ cance. e conﬂ ict between his superego and his ego is the

source of his guilt feelings, but he does not know that. Never having heard that there are diﬀ erent

theories, he has a vague feeling of shame for doing something wrong. Dr. Publish-Perish does not

follow any of the three diﬀ erent conceptions. Unknowingly, he tries to satisfy all of them and ends

up presenting an exact level of signiﬁ cance as if it were an alpha level, yet ﬁ rst rounding it up to one

of the conventional levels of signiﬁ cance, p < .05, p < .01, or p < .001. e result is not ", nor an

exact level of signiﬁ cance, nor a conventional level. It is an emotional and intellectual confusion.

Question 5: What Emotional Structure Sustains the Null Ritual?

Dr. Publish-Perish is likely to share some of the illusions demonstrated in the ﬁ rst section. Recall

that most of these illusions involve the confusion of the level of signiﬁ cance with the probability

of a hypothesis. Yet every person of average intelligence can understand the diﬀ erence between

p(D | H) and p(H | D), suggesting that the issue is not an intellectual but a social and emotional one.

Following Gigerenzer (1993; see also Acree, 1978), we will continue to use the Freudian language

of unconscious conﬂ icts as an analogy to analyze why intelligent people surrender to statistical

rituals rather than engage in statistical thinking.

e Neyman-Pearson theory serves as the superego of Dr. Publish-Perish’s statistical thinking,

demanding in advance the speciﬁ cation of precise alternative hypotheses, signiﬁ cance levels, and

power to calculate the sample size necessary, as well as teaching the doctrine of repeated random

sampling (Neyman, 1950, 1957). Moreover, the frequentist superego forbids the interpretation

of levels of signiﬁ cance as the degree of conﬁ dence that a particular hypothesis is true or false.

Hypothesis testing, in its view, is about decision making (i.e., acting as if a hypothesis were true or

false) but not about epistemic statements (i.e., believing in a hypothesis).

e Fisherian theory of signiﬁ cance testing functions as the ego. e ego gets things done in the

laboratory and papers published. e ego determines the level of signiﬁ cance after the experiment,

and it does not specify power or calculate the sample size necessary. e ego avoids precise predic-

tions from its research hypothesis and instead claims support for it by rejecting a null hypothesis.

e ego makes abundant epistemic statements about particular results and hypotheses. But it is

left with feelings of guilt and shame for having violated the rules.

e Bayesian posterior probabilities form the id of this hybrid logic. ese probabilities of

hypotheses are censored by both the frequentist superego and the pragmatic ego. However, they

are exactly what the Bayesian id wants, and it gets its way by wishful thinking and blocking the

intellect from understanding what a level of signiﬁ cance really is.

e Freudian analogy (see Figure 3) illustrates the unconscious conﬂ icts in the minds of the

average student, researcher, and editor and provides a way to understanding why many psycholo-

gists cling to null hypothesis testing like a ritual and why they do not seem to want to understand

GG_Null_2004.indd 12 12.04.2007 10:29:13 Uhr

Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch 13

what they easily could. e analogy brings the anxiety and guilt, the compulsive behavior, and

the intellectual blindness associated with the hybrid logic into the foreground. It is as if the raging

personal and intellectual conﬂ icts between Fisher and Neyman and Pearson, as well as between

these frequentists and the Bayesians, were projected into an “intra-psychic” conﬂ ict in the minds

of researchers. In Freudian theory, ritual is a way of resolving unconscious conﬂ ict.

Textbook writers, in turn, have tried to resolve the conscious conﬂ ict between statisticians

by collective silence. You will rarely ﬁ nd a textbook for psychologists that points out even a few

issues in the heated debate about what is good hypotheses testing, which is covered in detail in

Gigerenzer et al. (1989, chaps. 3, 6). e textbook method of denial includes omitting the names

of the parents of the various ideas—that is, Fisher, Neyman, and Pearson—except in connection

with trivialities such as an acknowledgment for permission to reproduce tables. One of the few

exceptions is Hays (1963), who mentioned in one sentence in the second edition that statistical

theory made cumulative progress from Fisher to Neyman and Pearson, although he did not hint at

their diﬀ ering ideas or conﬂ icts. In the third edition, however, this sentence was deleted, and Hays

fell back to common standards. When one of us (GG) asked him why he deleted this sentence, he

gave the same reason as for having removed the chapter on Bayesian statistics: e publisher wanted

a single-recipe cookbook, not names of statisticians whose theories might conﬂ ict. e fear seems

to be that a statistical toolbox would not sell as well as one truth or one hammer.

Many textbook writers in psychology continue to spread confusion about statistical theories,

even after they have learned otherwise. For instance, in response to Gigerenzer (1993), Chow

(1998) acknowledges that diﬀ erent logics of statistical inference exist. But a few lines later, he falls

back into the “it’s-all-the-same” fable when he asserts, “To K. Pearson, R. Fisher, J. Neyman, and

E. S. Pearson, NHSTP was what the empirical research was all about” (p. xi). Calling the heroes

of the past to justify the null ritual (to which NHSTP seems to amount) is bewildering. Each of

these statisticians would have rejected NHSTP. Neyman and Pearson spent their careers arguing

against null hypothesis testing, against a magical 5% level, and for the concept of Type II error

(which Chow declares not germane to NHSTP). Chow’s confusion is not an exception. NHSTP is

the symptom of the unconscious conﬂ ict illustrated in Figure 3. Laying open the conﬂ icts between

major approaches rather than denying them would be a ﬁ rst step to understanding the underlying

issues, a prerequisite for statistical thinking.

The Unconscious Conflict

Superego

(Neyman-Pearson)

Two or more hypotheses; alpha and beta determined

before the experiment; compute sample size; no

statements about the truth of hypotheses …

Ego

(Fisher)

Null hypothesis only; significance level computed

after the experiment; beta ignored; sample size by

rule of thumb; gets papers published but left with

feelings of guilt

Id

(Bayes)

Desire for probabilities of hypotheses

Figure 3. A Freudian Analogy for the

Unconscious Conﬂ icts in the Minds of

Researchers.

GG_Null_2004.indd 13 12.04.2007 10:29:13 Uhr

14 The Null Ritual

Question 6: Who Keeps Psychologists Performing the Null Ritual?

Ask graduate students, and they likely point to their advisers. e students do not want problems

with their thesis. When we meet them again as post-docs, the answer is that they need a job. After

getting their ﬁ rst job, they still feel restricted because there is a tenure decision in a couple of years.

When they are safe as associate or full professors, it is still not their fault because they believe the

editors of the major journals will not publish their papers without the null ritual. ere is always

someone else to blame, rather than one’s own lack of having the courage to know. But fears about

punishment for rule violations are not entirely unfounded. For instance, Melton (1962) insisted

on the null ritual and also made it clear in his editorial that he wants to see p < .01, not just p <

.05. e reasons he gave were two of the illusions listed in Question 1. He misleadingly asserted

that the lower the p-value, the higher the conﬁ dence that the alternative hypothesis is true and the

higher the probability that a replication will ﬁ nd a signiﬁ cant result. Nothing beyond p-values is

mentioned in the editorial: Precise hypotheses, good descriptive statistics, conﬁ dence intervals,

eﬀ ect sizes, and power do not appear in his statement about good research. us, the null ritual

seems to be enforced by editors.

e story of a recent editor, however, reveals that the truth is not as simple as that. In his

“On the Tyranny of Hypothesis Testing in the Social Sciences,” Geoﬀ rey Loftus (1991) reviewed

The Empire of Chance (Gigerenzer et al., 1989), which presented one of the ﬁ rst analyses of how

psychologists mishmashed ideas of Fisher and also Neyman and Pearson into one hybrid logic.

When Loftus (1993) became the editor of Memory & Cognition, he made it clear in his editorial

that he did not want authors to submit papers in which p-, t-, or F-values are mindlessly being

calculated and reported. Rather, he asked researchers to keep it simple and report ﬁ gures with error

bars, following the proverb that “a picture is worth more than a thousand p-values.” We admire

Loftus for having had the courage to take this step. Years after, one of us (GG) asked Loftus about

the success of his crusade against thoughtless signiﬁ cance testing. Loftus bitterly complained that

most researchers actually refused the opportunity to escape the ritual. Even when he asked in his

editorial letter to get rid of dozens of p-values, the authors insisted on keeping them in. ere is

something deeply engrained in the minds of many researchers that makes them repeat the same

action over and over again.

Question 7: How Can We Advance Statistical inking?

There is no single recipe for promoting statistical thinking, but there are several good heu-

ristics. We sketch a few of these, which the readers can use to construct their own program

or curriculum.

Hypotheses Is in the Plural

If there is one single severe problem with the null ritual, then it is the fact that hypothesis is in the

singular. Hypotheses testing should always be competitive; that is, the predictions of several hypoth-

eses should be speciﬁ ed. Figure 2 gives an example of how the predictions of two hypotheses can be

speciﬁ ed graphically. Rieskamp and Hoﬀ rage (1999), for instance, test eight competing hypotheses

about how people predict the proﬁ t of companies, and Gigerenzer and Hoﬀ rage (1995) test the

predictions of six cognitive strategies in problem solving. One advantage of multiple hypotheses is

GG_Null_2004.indd 14 12.04.2007 10:29:13 Uhr

Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch 15

the analysis of individual diﬀ erences: For instance, one can show that people systematically follow

diﬀ erent problem-solving strategies.

Minimize the True Error

Statistical thinking does not simply involve measuring the error and inserting the value into the

denominator of the t-ratio. Good statistical thinking is about how to minimize the real error. By

real error, we refer to the true variability of measurements or observations, not the variance divided

by the square root of the number of observations. W. S. Gosset, who published the t-test in 1908

under the pseudonym “Student” wrote, “Obviously the important thing … is to have a low real

error, not to have a ‘signiﬁ cant’ result at a particular station. e latter seems to me to be nearly

valueless in itself” (quoted in Pearson, 1939, p. 247). Methods of minimizing the real error include

proper choice of task (e.g., paired comparison instead of rating) (see Gigerenzer & Richter, 1990),

proper choice of experimental environment (e.g., testing participants individually rather than in

large classrooms), proper motivation (e.g., by performance-contingent payment rather than ﬂ at

sums), instructions that are unambiguous rather than vague, and the avoidance of unnecessary

deception of participants about the purpose of the experiment, which can lead to second-guessing

and increased variability of responses (Hertwig & Ortmann, 2001).

ink of a Toolbox, Not of a Hammer

Recall that the problem of inductive inference has no single best solution—it has many good

solutions. Statistical thinking involves analyzing the problem at hand and then selecting the best

tool in the statistical toolbox or even constructing such a tool. No tool is best for all problems. For

instance, there is no single best method of representing a central tendency: Whether to report the

mean, the median, the mode, or all three of these needs to be decided by the problem at hand.

e toolbox includes, among others, descriptive statistics, methods of exploratory data analysis,

conﬁ dence intervals, Fisher’s null hypothesis testing, Neyman-Pearson hypotheses testing, Wald’s

sequential analysis, and Bayesian statistics.

e concept of a toolbox has an important consequence for teaching statistics. Stop teaching the

null ritual or what is called NHSTP (see, e.g., Chow, 1998; Harlow, 1997). Teach statistics in the

plural: the major statistical tools together with good examples of problems they can solve. For in-

stance, the logic of Fisher’s (1956) null hypothesis testing can easily be made clear in three steps:

(1) Set up a statistical null hypothesis. The null need not be a nil hypothesis (zero difference).

(2) Report the exact level of significance (e.g., p = .011 or .051). Do not use a conventional 5%

level (e.g., p < .05), and do not talk about accepting or rejecting hypotheses.

(3) Use this procedure only if you know very little about the problem at hand.

Note that Fisher’s null hypothesis testing is, at each step, unlike the null ritual (see introduction).

One can see that statistical power has no place in Fisher’s framework—one needs a speciﬁ ed alterna-

tive hypothesis to compute power. In the same way, one can explain the logic of Neyman-Pearson

hypotheses testing, which we illustrate for the case of two hypotheses and a binary decision criterion

as follows:

(1) Set up two statistical hypotheses, H

1

and H

2

, and decide about ", !, and sample size before the

experiment, based on subjective cost-benefit considerations. These define a rejection region for

each hypothesis.

GG_Null_2004.indd 15 12.04.2007 10:29:13 Uhr

16 The Null Ritual

(2) If the data falls into the rejection region of H

1

, accept H

2

; otherwise, accept H

1

. Note that accepting

a hypothesis does not imply that you believe in it; it only means that you act as if it were true.

(3) The usefulness of the procedure is limited to situations in which you have a disjunction of

hypotheses (e.g., either µ = 8 or µ = 10 is true) and in which the scientific context can provide

the utilities that enter the choice of " and !.

A typical application of Neyman-Pearson testing is in quality control. Imagine a manufacturer of

metal plates that are used in medical instruments. She considers a mean diameter of 8 mm (H

1

) as

optimal and 10 mm (H

2

) as dangerous to the patients and hence unacceptable. From past experi-

ence, she knows that the random ﬂ uctuations of diameters are approximately normally distributed

and that the standard deviations do not depend on the mean. is allows her to determine the

sampling distributions of the mean for both hypotheses. She considers accepting H

1

while H

2

is

true (Type II error) to be the most serious error because it may cause harm to patients and to the

ﬁ rm’s reputation. She sets its probability as ! = 0.1% and " = 10%. Now she calculates the required

sample size n of plates that must be sampled every day to test the quality of the production. When

she accepts H

2

, she acts as if there were a malfunction and stops production, but this does not mean

that she believes that H

2

is true. She knows that she must expect a false alarm in 1 out of 10 days

in which there is no malfunction (Gigerenzer et al., 1989, chap. 3).

e basic logic of other statistical tools can be taught in the same way, and examples for their

usefulness and limits can be provided.

Know and Show Your Data

Descriptive statistics and exploratory data analysis are typically more informative than the null

ritual, speciﬁ cally in the presence of multiple hypotheses. For instance, the plot of the three curves

shown in Figure 2 is more informative than the result of the analysis of variance that the data do not

deviate signiﬁ cantly from the predictions of the null. Showing in addition the individual data points

around the means of the data curve, or at least the error bars, would be even more informative.

Similarly, a scatter plot showing the data points is more informative than a correlation coeﬃ cient,

for each scatter plot corresponds to one correlation, whereas a correlation of .5, for example, cor-

responds to many and strikingly diﬀ erent scatter plots. Wilkinson and the Task Force on Statistical

Inference (1999) give examples for informative graphs.

Keep It Simple

A statistical analysis should be transparent to its author and the readership. Each statistical method

consists of a sequence of mathematical operations, and to understand what the end product (factor

scores, regression weights, nonsigniﬁ cant interactions) means, one needs to check the meaning of

each operation at each step. Transparency allows the reader to follow each step and to understand

or criticize the analysis. e best vehicle for transparency is simplicity. If a point can be made by a

simple analysis, such as plotting the means and standard deviations, one should stick with it rather

than using a less transparent method, such as factor analysis or path analysis. e purpose of a

statistical analysis is not to impress others with a complex method they do not fully understand.

We have witnessed painful talks whereby the audience actually insisted on clariﬁ cation, only to

learn that the author did not understand his fancy method either. Never use a statistical method

that is not entirely transparent to you.

GG_Null_2004.indd 16 12.04.2007 10:29:14 Uhr

Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch 17

p-Values Want Company

If you wish to report a p-value, remember that it conveys very limited information. us, report

p-values together with information about eﬀ ect sizes, or power, or conﬁ dence intervals. Recall that

the null hypothesis that deﬁ nes the p-value need not be a nil hypothesis (e.g., zero diﬀ erence); any

hypothesis can be a null, and many diﬀ erent nulls can be tested simultaneously (e.g., Gigerenzer

& Richter, 1990).

Question 8: How Can We Have More Fun With Statistics?

Many students experience statistics as dry, dull, and dreary. It certainly need not be; real-world

examples (as in Gigerenzer, 2002) can make statistical thinking exciting. Here are several other

ways of turning students into statistics addicts, or at least of making them think. e ﬁ rst heuristic

is to draw a red thread from the past to the present. We understand the aspirations and fears of a

person better if we know his or her history. Knowing the history of a statistical concept can create

a similar feeling of intimacy.

Connecting to the Past

e ﬁ rst test of a null hypothesis was by John Arbuthnot in 1710. His aim was to give an empirical

proof of divine providence, that is, of an active God. Arbuthnot observed that “the external ac-

cidents to which males are subject (who must seek their food with danger) do make a great havock

of them, and that this loss exceeds far that of the other sex” (p. 188). To repair this loss, he argued,

God brings forth more males than females, year after year. He tested this hypothesis of divine

purpose against the null hypothesis of mere chance, using 82 years of birth records in London. In

every year, the number of male births was larger than that of female births. Arbuthnot calculated

the “expectation” of these data if the hypothesis of blind chance were true. In modern terms, the

probability of these data if the null hypothesis were true was

p(D | H

0

) = (1/2)

82

.

Because this probability was so small, he concluded that it is divine providence, not chance, that

rules:

Scholium. From hence it follows, that Polygamy is contrary to the Law of Nature and Justice, and to the

Propagation of the human Race; for where Males and Females are in equal number, if one Man takes

Twenty Wifes, Nineteen Men must live in Celibacy, which is repugnant to the Design of Nature; nor is it

probable that Twenty Women will be so well impregnated by one Man as by Twenty. (qtd. in Gigerenzer

& Murray, 1987, pp. 4–5)

Arbuthnot’s proof of God highlights the limitations of null hypothesis testing. e research hy-

pothesis (God’s divine intervention) is not stated in statistical terms. Nor is a substantial alternative

hypothesis stated in statistical terms (e.g., 3% of female newborns are abandoned immediately

after birth). Only the null hypothesis (“chance”) is stated in statistical terms—a nil hypothesis.

A result that is unlikely if the null were true (a low p-value) is taken as “proof” of the unspeciﬁ ed

research hypothesis.

Arbuthnot’s test was soon forgotten. e speciﬁ c techniques of null hypothesis testing, such as

the t-test (devised by Gosset in 1908) or the F-test (F for Fisher, e.g., in analysis of variance), were

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18 The Null Ritual

ﬁ rst applied in the context of agriculture. e examples in Fisher’s ﬁ rst book on statistics (1925)

smelled of manure, potatoes, and pigs. In his second book (1935), Fisher had cleaned out this odor,

as well as much of the mathematics, so that social scientists could bond with the new statistics. e

ﬁ rst applications of these tests in psychology were mostly in parapsychology and education.

A striking change in research practice, which was named the inference revolution in psychology

(Gigerenzer & Murray, 1987), happened from approximately 1940 to 1955 in the United States.

It led to the institutionalization of the null ritual as the method of scientiﬁ c inference in university

curricula, textbooks, and the editorials of major journals. Before 1940, null hypothesis testing

using analysis of variance or the t-test was practically nonexistent: Rucci and Tweney (1980) found

a total of only 17 articles published from 1934 to 1940 that used it. By the early 1950s, half of

the psychology departments in leading U.S. universities had made inferential statistics a graduate

program requirement (Rucci & Tweney, 1980). By 1955, more than 80% of the empirical articles

in four leading journals used null hypothesis testing (Sterling, 1959). Today, the ﬁ gure is close to

100%. Despite decades of critique of the null ritual, it is still practiced and defended by the ma-

jority of psychologists. For instance, it is often argued that if we can strip routine null hypothesis

testing of the mental confusion associated with it, something of limited but important use is left:

“deciding whether or not research data can be explained in terms of chance inﬂ uences” (Chow,

1998, p. 188). We are back to Arbuthnot: e focus is on chance; to test substantive alternative

hypotheses is not an issue. Arbuthnot, it should be said to his defense, was a step ahead—he did

not recommend his procedure as a routine.

Materials to connect with the past can be drawn from two seminal books by Stephen Stigler

(1986, 1999). His writing is so clear and entertaining that it feels as though one had grown up with

statistical thinking. Danziger (1987), Gigerenzer (1987, 2000), and Gigerenzer et al. (1989) tell

the story of the institutionalization of the null ritual in psychology.

Controversies and Polemics

Statistics has plenty of controversies. ese stories of conﬂ ict can provide highly motivating material

for students, who learn that—unlike in their textbooks—statistics is about real people and their

struggles with ideas and with one another. Because of Fisher’s remarkable talent for polemics, his

writings can serve as a starting point. Here are a few highlights.

Fisher once congratulated the Reverend omas Bayes for his insight to withhold his treatise

from publication (it was published posthumously in 1763/1963). Why did Fisher say that? Bayes’

rule presupposes the availability of a prior probability distribution over the possible hypotheses,

and Fisher insisted that such a distribution is only meaningful when it can be veriﬁ ed by sampling

from a population. Such distributional data are available in the case of HIV testing (see Question 2)

but obviously uncommon for scientiﬁ c hypotheses. Fisher believed that the Bayesians are wrong

in assuming that all uncertainties can be expressed in terms of probabilities (see Gigerenzer et al.,

1989, pp. 92–93).

Bayes’ rule and subjective probabilities were not the only target for Fisher. He branded Neyman’s

position as “childish” and “horrifying [for] the intellectual freedom of the west.” Indeed, he likened

Neyman to

Russians [who] are made familiar with the ideal that research in pure science can and should be geared

to technological performance, in the comprehensive organized eﬀ ort of a ﬁ ve-year plan for the nation …

[whereas] in the U.S. also the great importance of organized technology has I think made it easy to confuse

the process appropriate for drawing correct conclusions, with those aimed rather at, let us say, speeding

production, or saving money. (Fisher, 1955, p. 70)

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Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch 19

Why did Fisher link the Neyman-Pearson theory to Stalin’s 5-year plans? Why did Fisher also

compare them to the Americans, who confuse the process of gaining knowledge with speeding

up production and saving money? It is probably not an accident that Neyman was born in Russia

and, at the time of Fisher’s comment, had moved to the United States. What Fisher believed was

that cost-beneﬁ t calculations, Type I error rates, Type II error rates, and accept-reject decisions had

nothing to do with gaining knowledge but instead with technology and making money, as in qual-

ity control in industry. Researchers do not accept or reject hypotheses; rather, they communicate

the exact level of signiﬁ cance to fellow researchers, so that others can freely make up their minds.

In Fisher’s eyes, free communication was a sign of the freedom of the West, whereas being told a

decision was a sign of communism. For him, the concepts of ", !, and power (1 – !) have nothing

to do with testing scientiﬁ c hypotheses.

ey are deﬁ ned as long-run frequencies of errors in repeated experiments, whereas in science,

there are no experiments repeated again and again.

Fisher (1956) drew a bold line between his null hypothesis tests and Neyman-Pearson’s tests,

which he ridiculed as originating from “the phantasy of circles [i.e., mathematicians] rather remote

from scientiﬁ c research” (p. 100). Neyman, for his part, responded that some of Fisher’s tests

“are in a mathematically speciﬁ able sense ‘worse than useless’” (Hacking, 1965, p. 99). What did

Neyman have in mind with this verdict? Neyman had estimated the power of some of Fisher’s tests,

including the famous Lady-tea-tasting experiment in Fisher (1935), and found that the power was

sometimes smaller than ".

Polemics can motivate students to ask questions and to understand the competing ideas un-

derlying the tools in the toolbox. For useful material, see Fisher (1955, 1956), Gigerenzer (1993),

Gigerenzer et al. (1989, chap. 3), Hacking (1965), and Neyman (1950).

Playing Detective

Aside from motivating examples, history, and polemics, a further way to engage students is to

challenge them to ﬁ nd the errors of others. For instance, assign your students the task of looking

up the section on the logic of hypothesis testing in textbooks for statistics in psychology and check-

ing for wishful thinking, as in Table 1. Table 2 shows the result for a widely read textbook whose

author, as usual, did not spell out the diﬀ erences between Fisher, Neyman and Pearson, and the

Bayesians but mixed them all up. e price for this was confusion and wishful thinking about the

omnipotence of the level of signiﬁ cance. Table 2 shows quotes from three pages of the textbook,

in which the author tries to explain to the reader what a level of signiﬁ cance means. For instance,

the ﬁ rst three assertions are unintelligible or plainly wrong and suggest that a level of signiﬁ cance

would provide information about the probability of hypotheses, and the fourth amounts to the

replication fallacy.

Over the years, textbooks writers in psychology have learned to avoid obvious errors but still

continue to teach the null ritual. For instance, the 16th edition of a very inﬂ uential textbook,

Gerrig and Zimbardo’s (2002) Psychology and Life, contains sections on “inferential statistics” and

“becoming a wise consumer of statistics” (pp. 37–46), which are pure guidelines for the null ritual.

e ritual is portrayed as statistics per se and named the “backbone of psychological research”

(p. 46). Our detective student will ﬁ nd that the names of Fisher, Bayes, Neyman, and Pearson are

not mentioned, nor are concepts such as power, eﬀ ect size, or conﬁ dence intervals. She may also

stumble upon the prevailing oracular language: “Inferential statistics indicate the probability that

the particular sample of scores obtained are actually related to whatever you are attempting to

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20 The Null Ritual

measure or whether they could have occurred by chance” (p. 44). Yet in the midst of unintelligible

and nonsensical explanations such as these appear moments of deep insight: “Statistics can also be

used poorly or deceptively, misleading those who do not understand them” (p. 46).

Question 9: What if ere Were No Signiﬁ cance Tests?

is question has been asked in a series of articles in Harlow, Mulaik, and Steiger (1997) and in

similar debates, which are summarized in the superb review by Nickerson (2000). However, there

are actually two diﬀ erent questions: What if there were no null hypothesis testing (signiﬁ cance

testing), as advocated by Fisher? What if there were no null ritual (or NHSTP)?

If eminent psychologists have anything in common, it is their distaste for mindless null hypoth-

esis testing—which contrasts with the taste of the masses. You will not catch Jean Piaget testing a

null hypothesis. Piaget worked out his logical theory of cognitive development, Wolfgang Köhler

the Gestalt laws of perception, I. P. Pavlov the principles of classical conditioning, B. F. Skinner

those of operant conditioning, and Sir Frederick Bartlett his theory of remembering and sche-

mata—all without rejecting a null hypothesis. Moreover, F. Bartlett, R. Duncan Luce, Herbert A.

Simon, B. F. Skinner, and S. S. Stevens explicitly protested in their writings against the null ritual

(Gigerenzer, 1987, 1993; Gigerenzer & Murray, 1987).

So what if there were no null ritual or NHST? Nothing would be lost, except confusion,

anxiety, and a platform for lazy theoretical thinking. Much could be gained, such as knowledge

about diﬀ erent statistical tools, training in statistical thinking, and a motivation to deduce precise

predictions from one’s hypotheses. Should we ban the null ritual? Certainly—it is a matter of

intellectual integrity. Every researcher should have the courage not to surrender to the ritual, and

every editor, textbook writer, and adviser should feel obliged to promote statistical thinking and

reject mindless rituals.

What if there were no null hypothesis testing, as advocated by Fisher? Not much would be lost,

except in situations in which we know very little, where a p-value by itself can contribute something.

Note that this question is a diﬀ erent one: Fisher’s null hypothesis testing is one tool in the statistical

Table 2

What Does “Signiﬁ cant at the 5 % Level” Mean?

• “If the probability is low, the null hypothesis is improbable”

• “ e improbability of observed results being due to error”

• “ e probability that an observed diﬀ erence is real”

• “ e statistical conﬁ dence … with odds of 95 out of 100 that the observed diﬀ erence will hold up in investigations”

• Degree to which experimental results are taken “seriously”

• “ e danger of accepting a statistical result as real when it is actually due only to error’’

• Degree of “faith [that] can be placed in the reality of the ﬁ nding”

• “ e investigator can have 95 percent conﬁ dence that the sample mean actually diﬀ ers from the population mean”

• “All of these are diﬀ erent ways to say the same thing”

Note. Within three pages of text, the author of a widely read textbook explained to the reader that “level of signiﬁ cance”

means all of the above (Nunally, 1975, pp. 194–196). Smart students will be confused, but they may misattribute their

confusion to their own lack of understanding.

Source: Nunally (1975).

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Gerd Gigerenzer, Stefan Krauss, and Oliver Vitouch 21

toolbox, not a ritual. Should we ban null hypothesis testing? No, there is no reason to do so; it is

just one small tool among many. What we need is to educate the next generation to dare to think

and free themselves from compulsive hand-washing, anxiety, and feelings of guilt.

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