the capricious nature of p < .05, or why data peeking is evil

There’s a time-honored tradition in the social sciences–or at least psychology–that goes something like this. You decide on some provisional number of subjects you’d like to run in your study; usually it’s a nice round number like twenty or sixty, or some number that just happens to coincide with the sample size of the last successful study you ran. Or maybe it just happens to be your favorite number (which of course is forty-four). You get your graduate student to start running the study, and promptly forget about it for a couple of weeks while you go about writing up journal reviews that are three weeks overdue and chapters that are six months overdue.

A few weeks later, you decide you’d like to know how that Amazing New Experiment you’re running is going. You summon your RA and ask him, in magisterial tones, “how’s that Amazing New Experiment we’re running going?” To which he falteringly replies that he’s been very busy with all the other data entry and analysis chores you assigned him, so he’s only managed to collect data from eighteen subjects so far. But he promises to have the other eighty-two subjects done any day now.

“Not to worry,” you say. “We’ll just take a peek at the data now and see what it looks like; with any luck, you won’t even need to run any more subjects! By the way, here are my car keys; see if you can’t have it washed by 5 pm. Your job depends on it. Ha ha.”

Once your RA’s gone to soil himself somewhere, you gleefully plunge into the task of peeking at your data. You pivot your tables, plyr your data frame, and bravely sort your columns. Then you extract two of the more juicy variables for analysis, and after some careful surgery a t-test or six, you arrive at the conclusion that your hypothesis is… “marginally” supported. Which is to say, the magical p value is somewhere north of .05 and somewhere south of .10, and now it’s just parked by the curb waiting for you to give it better directions.

You briefly contemplate reporting your result as a one-tailed test–since it’s in the direction you predicted, right?–but ultimately decide against that. You recall the way your old Research Methods professor used to rail at length against the evils of one-sample tests, and even if you don’t remember exactly why they’re so evil, you’re not willing to take any chances. So you decide it can’t be helped; you need to collect some more data.

You summon your RA again. “Is my car washed yet?” you ask.

“No,” says your RA in a squeaky voice. “You just asked me to do that fifteen minutes ago.”

“Right, right,” you say. “I knew that.”

You then explain to your RA that he should suspend all other assigned duties for the next few days and prioritize running subjects in the Amazing New Experiment. “Abandon all other tasks!” you decree. “If it doesn’t involve collecting new data, it’s unimportant! Your job is to eat, sleep, and breathe new subjects! But not literally!”

Being quite clever, your RA sees an opening. “I guess you’ll want your car keys back, then,” he suggests.

“Nice try, Poindexter,” you say. “Abandon all other tasks… starting tomorrow.”

You also give your RA very careful instructions to email you the new data after every single subject, so that you can toss it into your spreadsheet and inspect the p value at every step. After all, there’s no sense in wasting perfectly good data; once your p value is below .05, you can just funnel the rest of the participants over to the Equally Amazing And Even Newer Experiment you’ve been planning to run as a follow-up. It’s a win-win proposition for everyone involved. Except maybe your RA, who’s still expected to return triumphant with a squeaky clean vehicle by 5 pm.

Twenty-six months and four rounds of review later, you publish the results of the Amazing New Experiment as Study 2 in a six-study paper in the Journal of Ambiguous Results. The reviewers raked you over the coals for everything from the suggested running head of the paper to the ratio between the abscissa and the ordinate in Figure 3. But what they couldn’t argue with was the p value in Study 2, which clocked in at just under p < .05, with only 21 subjects’ worth of data (compare that to the 80 you had to run in Study 4 to get a statistically significant result!). Suck on that, Reviewers!, you think to yourself pleasantly while driving yourself home from work in your shiny, shiny Honda Civic.

So ends our short parable, which has at least two subtle points to teach us. One is that it takes a really long time to publish anything; who has time to wait twenty-six months and go through four rounds of review?

The other, more important point, is that the desire to peek at one’s data, which often seems innocuous enough–and possibly even advisable (quality control is important, right?)–can actually be quite harmful. At least if you believe that the goal of doing research is to arrive at the truth, and not necessarily to publish statistically significant results.

The basic problem is that peeking at your data is rarely a passive process; most often, it’s done in the context of a decision-making process, where the goal is to determine whether or not you need to keep collecting data. There are two possible peeking outcomes that might lead you to decide to halt data collection: a very low p value (i.e., p < .05), in which case your hypothesis is supported and you may as well stop gathering evidence; or a very high p value, in which case you might decide that it’s unlikely you’re ever going to successfully reject the null, so you may as well throw in the towel. Either way, you’re making the decision to terminate the study based on the results you find in a provisional sample.

A complementary situation, which also happens not infrequently, occurs when you collect data from exactly as many participants as you decided ahead of time, only to find that your results aren’t quite what you’d like them to be (e.g., a marginally significant hypothesis test). In that case, it may be quite tempting to keep collecting data even though you’ve already hit your predetermined target. I can count on more than one hand the number of times I’ve overheard people say (often without any hint of guilt) something to the effect of “my p value’s at .06 right now, so I just need to collect data from a few more subjects.”

Here’s the problem with either (a) collecting more data in an effort to turn p < .06 into p < .05, or (b) ceasing data collection because you’ve already hit p < .05: any time you add another subject to your sample, there’s a fairly large probability the p value will go down purely by chance, even if there’s no effect. So there you are sitting at p < .06 with twenty-four subjects, and you decide to run a twenty-fifth subject. Well, let’s suppose that there actually isn’t a meaningful effect in the population, and that p < .06 value you’ve got is a (near) false positive. Adding that twenty-fifth subject can only do one of two things: it can raise your p value, or it can lower it. The exact probabilities of these two outcomes depends on the current effect size in your sample before adding the new subject; but generally speaking, they’ll rarely be very far from 50-50. So now you can see the problem: if you stop collecting data as soon as you get a significant result, you may well be capitalizing on chance. It could be that if you’d collected data from a twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh subject, the p value would reverse its trajectory and start rising. It could even be that if you’d collected data from two hundred subjects, the effect size would stabilize near zero. But you’d never know that if you stopped the study as soon as you got the results you were looking for.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, and think that this problem falls into the famous class of things-statisticians-and-methodologists-get-all-anal-about-but-that-don’t-really-matter-in-the-real-world, here’s a sobering figure (taken from this chapter):


The figure shows the results of a simulation quantifying the increase in false positives associated with data peeking. The assumptions here are that (a) data peeking begins after about 10 subjects (starting earlier would further increase false positives, and starting later would decrease false positives somewhat), (b) the researcher stops as soon as a peek at the data reveals a result significant at p < .05, and (c) data peeking occurs at incremental steps of either 1 or 5 subjects. Given these assumptions, you can see that there’s a fairly monstrous rise in the actual Type I error rate (relative to the nominal rate of 5%). For instance, if the researcher initially plans to collect 60 subjects, but peeks at the data after every 5 subjects, there’s approximately a 17% chance that the threshold of p < .05 will be reached before the full sample of 60 subjects is collected. When data peeking occurs even more frequently (as might happen if a researcher is actively trying to turn p < .07 into p < .05, and is monitoring the results after each incremental participant), Type I error inflation is even worse. So unless you think there’s no practical difference between a 5% false positive rate and a 15 – 20% false positive rate, you should be concerned about data peeking; it’s not the kind of thing you just brush off as needless pedantry.

How do we stop ourselves from capitalizing on chance by looking at the data? Broadly speaking, there are two reasonable solutions. One is to just pick a number up front and stick with it. If you commit yourself to collecting data from exactly as many subjects as you said you would (you can proclaim the exact number loudly to anyone who’ll listen, if you find it helps), you’re then free to peek at the data all you want. After all, it’s not the act of observing the data that creates the problem; it’s the decision to terminate data collection based on your observation that matters.

The other alternative is to explicitly correct for data peeking. This is a common approach in large clinical trials, where data peeking is often ethically mandated, because you don’t want to either (a) harm people in the treatment group if the treatment turns out to have clear and dangerous side effects, or (b) prevent the control group from capitalizing on the treatment too if it seems very efficacious. In either event, you’d want to terminate the trial early. What researchers often do, then, is pick predetermined intervals at which to peek at the data, and then apply a correction to the p values that takes into account the number of, and interval between, peeking occasions. Provided you do things systematically in that way, peeking then becomes perfectly legitimate. Of course, the downside is that having to account for those extra inspections of the data makes your statistical tests more conservative. So if there aren’t any ethical issues that necessitate peeking, and you’re not worried about quality control issues that might be revealed by eyeballing the data, your best bet is usually to just pick a reasonable sample size (ideally, one based on power calculations) and stick with it.

Oh, and also, don’t make your RAs wash your car for you; that’s not their job.