Visual Comparison of Two Data Sets: Do People Use the Means and the Variability?


  • Robin S. S. Kramer
  • Caitlin G. R. Telfer
  • Alice Towler


In our everyday lives, we are required to make decisions based upon our statistical intuitions. Often, these involve the comparison of two groups, such as luxury versus family cars and their suitability. Research has shown that the mean difference affects judgements where two sets of data are compared, but the variability of the data has only a minor influence, if any at all. However, prior research has tended to present raw data as simple lists of values. Here, we investigated whether displaying data visually, in the form of parallel dot plots, would lead viewers to incorporate variability information. In Experiment 1, we asked a large sample of people to compare two fictional groups (children who drank ‘Brain Juice’ versus water) in a one-shot design, where only a single comparison was made. Our results confirmed that only the mean difference between the groups predicted subsequent judgements of how much they differed, in line with previous work using lists of numbers. In Experiment 2, we asked each participant to make multiple comparisons, with both the mean difference and the pooled standard deviation varying across data sets they were shown. Here, we found that both sources of information were correctly incorporated when making responses. Taken together, we suggest that increasing the salience of variability information, through manipulating this factor across items seen, encourages viewers to consider this in their judgements. Such findings may have useful applications for best practices when teaching difficult concepts like sampling variation.