Type I and II Errors

Prerequisites
Introduction to Hypothesis Testing, Statistical Significance

Learning Objectives

  1. Define Type I and Type II errors
  2. Interpret significant and non-significant differences
  3. Explain why the null hypothesis should not be rejected when the effect is not significant

A Type I error occurs when a significance test results in the rejection of a true null hypothesis. By one common convention, if the probability value is below 0.05 then the null hypothesis is rejected. Another convention, although slightly less common, is to reject the null hypothesis if the probability value is below 0.01. The threshold for rejecting the null hypothesis is called the α level or simply α. It is also called the significance level. As discussed in the introduction to hypothesis testing, it is better to interpret the probability value as an indication of the weight of evidence against the null hypothesis than as part of a decision rule for making a reject or do-not-reject decision. Therefore, keep in mind that rejecting the null hypothesis is not an all-or-nothing decision.

The Type I error rate is affected by the α level: the lower the α level the lower the Type I error rate. It might seem that α is the probability of a Type I error. However, this is not correct. Instead, α is the probability of a Type I error given that the null hypothesis is true. If the null hypothesis is false, then it is impossible to make a Type I error.

The second type of error that can be made in significance testing is failing to reject a false null hypothesis. This kind of error is called a Type II error. Unlike a Type I error, a Type II error is not really an error. When a statistical test is not significant, it means that the data do not provide strong evidence that the null hypothesis is false. Lack of significance does not support the conclusion that the null hypothesis is true. Therefore, a researcher would not make the mistake of incorrectly concluding that the null hypothesis is true when a statistical test was not significant. Instead, the researcher would consider the test inconclusive. Contrast this with a Type I error in which the researcher erroneously concludes that the null hypothesis is false when, in fact, it is true.

A Type II error can only occur if the null hypothesis is false. If the null hypothesis is false, then the probability of a Type II error is called β. The probability of correctly rejecting a false null hypothesis equals 1- β and is called power. Power is covered in detail in another section.