Introduction to the Measures of Central Tendency

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Iliya Valchanov 19 Apr 2023 6 min read

If you have ever wondered if pizza in New York is cheaper than in LA, the measures of central tendency will provide the answer. This term may sound scary at first, but we are talking about mean, median and mode.  Even if you are familiar with them, please stick around, as we will explore their upsides and shortfalls.

Measures of central tendency

The Mean

The first measure of central tendency which we will study is the mean, a.k.a. the simple average. It is denoted by the Greek letter m for a population and x_bar for a sample. You can see how they are denoted in the picture below.

Denotation of mu and X_bar, central tendency

These notions may come in handy as you go deeper into studying statistics.

We can find the mean of a data set by adding up all of its components and then dividing them by their number.

How do we find the mean, central tendency  

The Downside of the Mean

The mean is the most common measure of central tendency, but it has a huge downside – it is easily affected by outliers.

The mean, central tendency

Let’s aid ourselves with an example.

Take a look at the picture below.

Pizza prices example, central tendency

What you can see are the prices of pizza at 11 different locations in New York City and 10 different locations in LA. Let’s calculate the means of the two datasets using the formula.

Mean in NY and mean in LA, central tendency

For the mean in NYC, we get 11 dollars, whereas for LA - just 5.5! On average, there is no way that pizza in New York is twice as expensive as in LA.

The Problem

The problem is that in our sample, we have included one posh place in New York, where they charge 66 dollars for pizza.

66.00 dollars for pizza, central tendency

This is what doubled the mean. What we should take away from this example is that the mean is not enough to make definite conclusions.

So, let’s find out how we can protect ourselves from this issue.

The Median

As you might have guessed, we can calculate the second measure – the median. The median is basically the ‘middle’ number in an ordered data set. Let’s see how it works for our example. In order to calculate the median, we have to order our data in ascending order.

Calculate the median, central tendency

The median of the data set is the number at position (n +1) / 2 in the ordered list, where n is the number of observations.

Therefore, the median for NYC is at the sixth position or $6. Much closer to the observed prices than the mean of $11.

Mean of $11. Median of $6, central tendency

A Particular Case

What about LA? We only have 10 observations there. According to our formula, the median is at position 5.5. In cases like this, the median is the simple average of the numbers at positions 5 and 6. Therefore, the median of LA prices is 5.5 dollars.

$5+$6 = $5.5, central tendency

Now you know that the median is not affected by extreme prices, which is good when we have posh New York restaurants in a street pizza sample. But we still don’t get the full picture.

The Mode

We must introduce another measure of central tendency – the mode. The mode is the value that occurs most often. It can be used for both numerical and categorical data, but we will stick to our numerical example. After counting the frequencies of each value, we find that the mode of New York pizza prices is 3 dollars.

Mode is $3

Well, that’s interesting! The most common price of pizza in NYC is just 3 dollars, but the mean and median led us to believe it was much more expensive.

The mean and median led us to believe it was much more expensive

Another Interesting Case

Now, let’s do the same and find the mode of LA pizza prices. However, each price appears only once. How do we find the mode then? Well, we say that there is no mode.

You may be wondering if you can say that there are 10 modes. Sure you can, but it will be meaningless with 10 observations. Furthermore, an experienced statistician would never do that. In general, you often have multiple modes. Usually, two or three modes are tolerable, but more than that would defeat the purpose of finding a mode.

LA has no mode

Which Measure of Central Tendency is the Best

This is the only question that we haven’t answered yet.

Which measure is best?

The NYC and LA example shows us that measures of central tendency should be used together rather than independently. Therefore, there is no best, but using only one is definitely the worst. Mostly, you'll need to estimate all of them and consider them jointly, which requires some time and effort.

To speed up the process, you can use our Mean, Median, Mode Calculator. It's an efficient and convenient way to obtain the results you need in just a few clicks.

There is no best


In case you want to put what you’ve learned to practice, feel free to jump onto our tutorial about skewness.


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Next Tutorial: Measuring Asymmetry with Skewness

Iliya Valchanov

Co-founder of 365 Data Science

Iliya is a finance graduate with a strong quantitative background who chose the exciting path of a startup entrepreneur. He demonstrated a formidable affinity for numbers during his childhood, winning more than 90 national and international awards and competitions through the years. Iliya started teaching at university, helping other students learn statistics and econometrics. Inspired by his first happy students, he co-founded 365 Data Science to continue spreading knowledge. He authored several of the program’s online courses in mathematics, statistics, machine learning, and deep learning.