Skip to main content
Statistics LibreTexts

11.1: A Menagerie of Hypotheses

  • Page ID
  • Eventually we all succumb to madness. For me, that day will arrive once I’m finally promoted to full professor. Safely ensconced in my ivory tower, happily protected by tenure, I will finally be able to take leave of my senses (so to speak), and indulge in that most thoroughly unproductive line of psychological research: the search for extrasensory perception (ESP).158

    Let’s suppose that this glorious day has come. My first study is a simple one, in which I seek to test whether clairvoyance exists. Each participant sits down at a table, and is shown a card by an experimenter. The card is black on one side and white on the other. The experimenter takes the card away, and places it on a table in an adjacent room. The card is placed black side up or white side up completely at random, with the randomisation occurring only after the experimenter has left the room with the participant. A second experimenter comes in and asks the participant which side of the card is now facing upwards. It’s purely a one-shot experiment. Each person sees only one card, and gives only one answer; and at no stage is the participant actually in contact with someone who knows the right answer. My data set, therefore, is very simple. I have asked the question of N people, and some number X of these people have given the correct response. To make things concrete, let’s suppose that I have tested N=100 people, and X=62 of these got the answer right… a surprisingly large number, sure, but is it large enough for me to feel safe in claiming I’ve found evidence for ESP? This is the situation where hypothesis testing comes in useful. However, before we talk about how to test hypotheses, we need to be clear about what we mean by hypotheses.

    11.1.1 Research hypotheses versus statistical hypotheses

    The first distinction that you need to keep clear in your mind is between research hypotheses and statistical hypotheses. In my ESP study, my overall scientific goal is to demonstrate that clairvoyance exists. In this situation, I have a clear research goal: I am hoping to discover evidence for ESP. In other situations I might actually be a lot more neutral than that, so I might say that my research goal is to determine whether or not clairvoyance exists. Regardless of how I want to portray myself, the basic point that I’m trying to convey here is that a research hypothesis involves making a substantive, testable scientific claim… if you are a psychologist, then your research hypotheses are fundamentally about psychological constructs. Any of the following would count as research hypotheses:

    • Listening to music reduces your ability to pay attention to other things. This is a claim about the causal relationship between two psychologically meaningful concepts (listening to music and paying attention to things), so it’s a perfectly reasonable research hypothesis.
    • Intelligence is related to personality. Like the last one, this is a relational claim about two psychological constructs (intelligence and personality), but the claim is weaker: correlational not causal.
    • Intelligence is* speed of information processing. This hypothesis has a quite different character: it’s not actually a relational claim at all. It’s an ontological claim about the fundamental character of intelligence (and I’m pretty sure it’s wrong). It’s worth expanding on this one actually: It’s usually easier to think about how to construct experiments to test research hypotheses of the form “does X affect Y?” than it is to address claims like “what is X?” And in practice, what usually happens is that you find ways of testing relational claims that follow from your ontological ones. For instance, if I believe that intelligence is* speed of information processing in the brain, my experiments will often involve looking for relationships between measures of intelligence and measures of speed. As a consequence, most everyday research questions do tend to be relational in nature, but they’re almost always motivated by deeper ontological questions about the state of nature.

    Notice that in practice, my research hypotheses could overlap a lot. My ultimate goal in the ESP experiment might be to test an ontological claim like “ESP exists”, but I might operationally restrict myself to a narrower hypothesis like “Some people can `see’ objects in a clairvoyant fashion”. That said, there are some things that really don’t count as proper research hypotheses in any meaningful sense:

    • Love is a battlefield. This is too vague to be testable. While it’s okay for a research hypothesis to have a degree of vagueness to it, it has to be possible to operationalise your theoretical ideas. Maybe I’m just not creative enough to see it, but I can’t see how this can be converted into any concrete research design. If that’s true, then this isn’t a scientific research hypothesis, it’s a pop song. That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting – a lot of deep questions that humans have fall into this category. Maybe one day science will be able to construct testable theories of love, or to test to see if God exists, and so on; but right now we can’t, and I wouldn’t bet on ever seeing a satisfying scientific approach to either.
    • The first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club. This is not a substantive claim of any kind. It’s true by definition. No conceivable state of nature could possibly be inconsistent with this claim. As such, we say that this is an unfalsifiable hypothesis, and as such it is outside the domain of science. Whatever else you do in science, your claims must have the possibility of being wrong.
    • More people in my experiment will say “yes” than “no”. This one fails as a research hypothesis because it’s a claim about the data set, not about the psychology (unless of course your actual research question is whether people have some kind of “yes” bias!). As we’ll see shortly, this hypothesis is starting to sound more like a statistical hypothesis than a research hypothesis.

    As you can see, research hypotheses can be somewhat messy at times; and ultimately they are scientific claims. Statistical hypotheses are neither of these two things. Statistical hypotheses must be mathematically precise, and they must correspond to specific claims about the characteristics of the data generating mechanism (i.e., the “population”). Even so, the intent is that statistical hypotheses bear a clear relationship to the substantive research hypotheses that you care about! For instance, in my ESP study my research hypothesis is that some people are able to see through walls or whatever. What I want to do is to “map” this onto a statement about how the data were generated. So let’s think about what that statement would be. The quantity that I’m interested in within the experiment is P("correct"), the true-but-unknown probability with which the participants in my experiment answer the question correctly. Let’s use the Greek letter θ (theta) to refer to this probability. Here are four different statistical hypotheses:

    • If ESP doesn’t exist and if my experiment is well designed, then my participants are just guessing. So I should expect them to get it right half of the time and so my statistical hypothesis is that the true probability of choosing correctly is θ=0.5.
    • Alternatively, suppose ESP does exist and participants can see the card. If that’s true, people will perform better than chance. The statistical hypotheis would be that θ>0.5.
    • A third possibility is that ESP does exist, but the colours are all reversed and people don’t realise it (okay, that’s wacky, but you never know…). If that’s how it works then you’d expect people’s performance to be below chance. This would correspond to a statistical hypothesis that θ<0.5.
    • Finally, suppose ESP exists, but I have no idea whether people are seeing the right colour or the wrong one. In that case, the only claim I could make about the data would be that the probability of making the correct answer is not equal to 50. This corresponds to the statistical hypothesis that θ≠0.5.

    All of these are legitimate examples of a statistical hypothesis because they are statements about a population parameter and are meaningfully related to my experiment.

    What this discussion makes clear, I hope, is that when attempting to construct a statistical hypothesis test the researcher actually has two quite distinct hypotheses to consider. First, he or she has a research hypothesis (a claim about psychology), and this corresponds to a statistical hypothesis (a claim about the data generating population). In my ESP example, these might be

    Dan.s.research.hypothesis Dan.s.statistical.hypothesis
    ESP.exists θ≠0.5

     And the key thing to recognise is this: a statistical hypothesis test is a test of the statistical hypothesis, not the research hypothesis. If your study is badly designed, then the link between your research hypothesis and your statistical hypothesis is broken. To give a silly example, suppose that my ESP study was conducted in a situation where the participant can actually see the card reflected in a window; if that happens, I would be able to find very strong evidence that θ≠0.5, but this would tell us nothing about whether “ESP exists”.

    11.1.2 Null hypotheses and alternative hypotheses

    So far, so good. I have a research hypothesis that corresponds to what I want to believe about the world, and I can map it onto a statistical hypothesis that corresponds to what I want to believe about how the data were generated. It’s at this point that things get somewhat counterintuitive for a lot of people. Because what I’m about to do is invent a new statistical hypothesis (the “null” hypothesis, H0) that corresponds to the exact opposite of what I want to believe, and then focus exclusively on that, almost to the neglect of the thing I’m actually interested in (which is now called the “alternative” hypothesis, H1). In our ESP example, the null hypothesis is that θ=0.5, since that’s what we’d expect if ESP didn’t exist. My hope, of course, is that ESP is totally real, and so the alternative to this null hypothesis is θ≠0.5. In essence, what we’re doing here is dividing up the possible values of θ into two groups: those values that I really hope aren’t true (the null), and those values that I’d be happy with if they turn out to be right (the alternative). Having done so, the important thing to recognise is that the goal of a hypothesis test is not to show that the alternative hypothesis is (probably) true; the goal is to show that the null hypothesis is (probably) false. Most people find this pretty weird.

    The best way to think about it, in my experience, is to imagine that a hypothesis test is a criminal trial159… the trial of the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis is the defendant, the researcher is the prosecutor, and the statistical test itself is the judge. Just like a criminal trial, there is a presumption of innocence: the null hypothesis is deemed to be true unless you, the researcher, can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it is false. You are free to design your experiment however you like (within reason, obviously!), and your goal when doing so is to maximise the chance that the data will yield a conviction… for the crime of being false. The catch is that the statistical test sets the rules of the trial, and those rules are designed to protect the null hypothesis – specifically to ensure that if the null hypothesis is actually true, the chances of a false conviction are guaranteed to be low. This is pretty important: after all, the null hypothesis doesn’t get a lawyer. And given that the researcher is trying desperately to prove it to be false, someone has to protect it.