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Confidence Intervals and the Normal Distribution

A confidence interval is a range of values that gives the user a sense of how precisely a statistic estimates a parameter. The most familiar use of a confidence interval is likely the "margin of error" reported in news stories about polls: "The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points." But confidence intervals are useful in contexts that go well beyond that simple situation.

Confidence intervals can be used with distributions that aren't normal—that are highly skewed or in some other way non-normal. But it's easiest to understand what they're about in symmetric distributions, so the topic is introduced here. Don't let that get you thinking that you can use confidence intervals with normal distributions only.

The Meaning of a Confidence Interval

Suppose that you measured the HDL level in the blood of 100 adults on a special diet and calculated a mean of 50 mg/dl with a standard deviation of 20. You're aware that the mean is a statistic, not a population parameter, and that another sample of 100 adults, on the same diet, would very likely return a different mean value. Over many repeated samples, the grand mean—that is, the mean of the sample means—would turn out to be very, very close to the population parameter.

But your resources don't extend that far and you're going to have to make do with just the one statistic, the 50 mg/dl that you calculated for your sample. Although the value of 20 that you calculate for the sample standard deviation is a statistic, it is the same as the known population standard deviation of 20. You can make use of the sample standard deviation and the number of HDL values that you tabulated in order to get a sense of how much play there is in that sample estimate.

You do so by constructing a confidence interval around that mean of 50 mg/dl. Perhaps the interval extends from 45 to 55. (And here you can see the relationship to "plus or minus 3 percentage points.") Does that tell you that the true population mean is somewhere between 45 and 55?

No, it doesn't, although it might well be. Just as there are many possible samples that you might have taken, but didn't, there are many possible confidence intervals you might have constructed around the sample means, but couldn't. As you'll see, you construct your confidence interval in such a way that if you took many more means and put confidence intervals around them, 95% of the confidence intervals would capture the true population mean. As to the specific confidence interval that you did construct, the probability that the true population mean falls within the interval is either 1 or 0: either the interval captures the mean or it doesn't.

However, it is more rational to assume that the one confidence interval that you took is one of the 95% that capture the population mean than to assume it doesn't. So you would tend to believe, with 95% confidence, that the interval is one of those that captures the population mean.

Although I've spoken of 95% confidence intervals in this section, you can also construct 90% or 99% confidence intervals, or any other degree of confidence that makes sense to you in a particular situation. You'll see next how your choices when you construct the interval affect the nature of the interval itself. It turns out that it smoothes the discussion if you're willing to suspend your disbelief a bit, and briefly: I'm going to ask you to imagine a situation in which you know what the standard deviation of a measure is in the population, but that you don't know its mean in the population. Those circumstances are a little odd but far from impossible.

Constructing a Confidence Interval

A confidence interval on a mean, as described in the prior section, requires these building blocks:

  • The mean itself
  • The standard deviation of the observations
  • The number of observations in the sample
  • The level of confidence you want to apply to the confidence interval

Starting with the level of confidence, suppose that you want to create a 95% confidence interval: You want to construct it in such a way that if you created 100 confidence intervals, 95 of them would capture the true population mean.

In that case, because you're dealing with a normal distribution, you could enter these formulas in a worksheet:

  • =NORM.S.INV(0.025)
  • =NORM.S.INV(0.975)

The NORM.S.INV() function, described in the prior section, returns the z-score that has to its left the proportion of the curve's area given as the argument. Therefore, NORM.S.INV(0.025) returns -1.96. That's the z-score that has 0.025, or 2.5%, of the curve's area to its left.

Similarly, NORM.S.INV(0.975) returns 1.96, which has 97.5% of the curve's area to its left. Another way of saying it is that 2.5% of the curve's area lies to its right. These figures are shown in Figure 7.6.

Figure 7.6

Figure 7.6 Adjusting the z-score limit adjusts the level of confidence. Compare Figures 7.6 and 7.7.

The area under the curve in Figure 7.6, and between the values 46.1 and 53.9 on the horizontal axis, accounts for 95% of the area under the curve. The curve, in theory, extends to infinity to the left and to the right, so all possible values for the population mean are included in the curve. Ninety-five percent of the possible values lie within the 95% confidence interval between 46.1 and 53.9.

The figures 46.1 and 53.9 were chosen so as to capture that 95%. If you wanted a 99% confidence interval (or some other interval more or less likely to be one of the intervals that captures the population mean), you would choose different figures. Figure 7.7 shows a 99% confidence interval around a sample mean of 50.

Figure 7.7

Figure 7.7 Widening the interval gives you more confidence that you are capturing the population parameter but inevitably results in a vaguer estimate.

In Figure 7.7, the 99% confidence interval extends from 44.8 to 55.2, a total of 2.6 points wider than the 95% confidence interval depicted in Figure 7.6. If a hundred 99% confidence intervals were constructed around the means of 100 samples, 99 of them (not 95 as before) would capture the population mean. The additional confidence is provided by making the interval wider. And that's always the tradeoff in confidence intervals. The narrower the interval, the more precisely you draw the boundaries, but the fewer such intervals will capture the statistic in question (here, that's the mean). The broader the interval, the less precisely you set the boundaries but the larger the number of intervals that capture the statistic.

Other than setting the confidence level, the only factor that's under your control is the sample size. You generally can't dictate that the standard deviation is to be smaller, but you can take larger samples. As you'll see in Chapters 8 and 9, the standard deviation used in a confidence interval around a sample mean is not the standard deviation of the individual raw scores. It is that standard deviation divided by the square root of the sample size, and this is known as the standard error of the mean.

The data set used to create the charts in Figures 7.6 and 7.7 has a standard deviation of 20, known to be the same as the population standard deviation. The sample size is 100. Therefore, the standard error of the mean is

or 2.

To complete the construction of the confidence interval, you multiply the standard error of the mean by the z-scores that cut off the confidence level you're interested in. Figure 7.6, for example, shows a 95% confidence interval. The interval must be constructed so that 95% lies under the curve and within the interval—therefore, 5% must lie outside the interval, with 2.5% divided equally between the tails.

Here's where the NORM.S.INV() function comes into play. Earlier in this section, these two formulas were used:

  • =NORM.S.INV(0.025)
  • =NORM.S.INV(0.975)

They return the z-scores -1.96 and 1.96, which form the boundaries for 2.5% and 97.5% of the unit normal distribution, respectively. If you multiply each by the standard error of 2, and add the sample mean of 50, you get 46.1 and 53.9, the limits of a 95% confidence interval on a mean of 50 and a standard error of 2.

If you want a 99% confidence interval, use the formulas

  • =NORM.S.INV(0.005)
  • =NORM.S.INV(0.995)

to return -2.58 and 2.58. These z-scores cut off one half of one percent of the unit normal distribution at each end. The remainder of the area under the curve is 99%. Multiplying each z-score by 2 and adding 50 for the mean results in 44.8 and 55.2, the limits of a 99% confidence interval on a mean of 50 and a standard error of 2.

At this point it can help to back away from the arithmetic and focus instead on the concepts. Any z-score is some number of standard deviations—so a z-score of 1.96 is a point that's found at 1.96 standard deviations above the mean, and a z-score of -1.96 is found 1.96 standard deviations below the mean.

Because the nature of the normal curve has been studied so extensively, we know that 95% of the area under a normal curve is found between 1.96 standard deviations below the mean and 1.96 standard deviations above the mean.

When you want to put a confidence interval around a sample mean, you start by deciding what percentage of other sample means, if collected and calculated, you would want to fall within that interval. So, if you decided that you wanted 95% of possible sample means to be captured by your confidence interval, you would put it 1.96 standard deviations above and below your sample mean.

But how large is the relevant standard deviation? In this situation, the relevant units are themselves mean values. You need to know the standard deviation not of the original and individual observations, but of the means that are calculated from those observations. That standard deviation has a special name, the standard error of the mean.

Because of mathematical derivations and long experience with the way the numbers behave, we know that a good, close estimate of the standard deviation of the mean values is the standard deviation of individual scores, divided by the square root of the sample size. That's the standard deviation you want to use to determine your confidence interval.

In the example this section has explored, the standard deviation is 20 and the sample size is 100, so the standard error of the mean is 2. When you calculate 1.96 standard errors below the mean of 50 and above the mean of 50, you wind up with values of 46.1 and 53.9. That's your 95% confidence interval. If you took another 99 samples from the population, 95 of 100 similar confidence intervals would capture the population mean. It's sensible to conclude that the confidence interval you calculated is one of the 95 that capture the population mean. It's not sensible to conclude that it's one of the remaining 5 that don't.

Excel Worksheet Functions That Calculate Confidence Intervals

The preceding section's discussion of the use of the normal distribution made the assumption that you know the standard deviation in the population. That's not an implausible assumption, but it is true that you often don't know the population standard deviation and must estimate it on the basis of the sample you take. There are two different distributions that you need access to, depending on whether you know the population standard deviation or are estimating it. If you know it, you make reference to the normal distribution. If you are estimating it from a sample, you use the t-distribution.

Excel 2010 has two worksheet functions, CONFIDENCE.NORM() and CONFIDENCE.T(), that help calculate the width of confidence intervals. You use CONFIDENCE.NORM() when you know the population standard deviation of the measure (such as this chapter's example using HDL levels). You use CONFIDENCE.T() when you don't know the measure's standard deviation in the population and are estimating it from the sample data. Chapters 8 and 9 have more information on this distinction, which involves the choice between using the normal distribution and the t-distribution.

Versions of Excel prior to 2010 have the CONFIDENCE() function only. Its arguments and results are identical to those of the CONFIDENCE.NORM() consistency function. Prior to 2010 there was no single worksheet function to return a confidence interval based on the t-distribution. However, as you'll see in this section, it's very easy to replicate CONFIDENCE.T() using either T.INV() or TINV(). You can replicate CONFIDENCE.NORM() using NORM.S.INV() or NORMSINV().


Figure 7.8 shows a small data set in cells A2:A17. Its mean is in cell B2 and the population standard deviation in cell C2.

Figure 7.8

Figure 7.8 You can construct a confidence interval using either a confidence function or a normal distribution function.

In Figure 7.8, a value called alpha is in cell F2. The use of that term is consistent with its use in other contexts such as hypothesis testing. It is the area under the curve that is outside the limits of the confidence interval. In Figure 7.6, alpha is the sum of the shaded areas in the curve's tails. Each shaded area is 2.5% of the total area, so alpha is 5% or 0.05. The result is a 95% confidence interval.

Cell G2 in Figure 7.8 shows how to use the CONFIDENCE.NORM() function. Note that you could use the CONFIDENCE() compatibility function in the same way. The syntax is

  • =CONFIDENCE.NORM(alpha, standard deviation, size)

where size refers to sample size. As the function is used in cell G2, it specifies 0.05 for alpha, 22 for the population standard deviation, and 16 for the count of values in the sample:


This returns 10.78 as the result of the function, given those arguments. Cells G4 and I4 show, respectively, the upper and lower limits of the 95% confidence interval.

There are several points to note:

  • CONFIDENCE.NORM() is used, not CONFIDENCE.T(). This is because you have knowledge of the population standard deviation and need not estimate it from the sample standard deviation. If you had to estimate the population value from the sample, you would use CONFIDENCE.T(), as described in the next section.
  • Because the sum of the confidence level (for example, 95%) and alpha always equals 100%, Microsoft could have chosen to ask you for the confidence level instead of alpha. It is standard to refer to confidence intervals in terms of confidence levels such as 95%, 90%, 99%, and so on. Microsoft would have demonstrated a greater degree of consideration for its customers had it chosen to use the confidence level instead of alpha as the function's first argument.
  • The Help documentation states that CONFIDENCE.NORM(), as well as the other two confidence interval functions, returns the confidence interval. It does not. The value returned is one half of the confidence interval. To establish the full confidence interval, you must subtract the result of the function from the mean and add the result to the mean.

Still in Figure 7.8, the range E7:I11 constructs a confidence interval identical to the one in E1:I4. It's useful because it shows what's going on behind the scenes in the CONFIDENCE.NORM() function. The following calculations are needed:

  • Cell F8 contains the formula =F2/2. The portion under the curve that's represented by alpha—here. 0.05, or 5%—must be split in half between the two tails of the distribution. The leftmost 2.5% of the area will be placed in the left tail, to the left of the lower limit of the confidence interval.
  • Cell F9 contains the remaining area under the curve after half of alpha has been removed. That is the leftmost 97.5% of the area, which is found to the left of the upper limit of the confidence interval.
  • Cell G8 contains the formula =NORM.S.INV(F8). It returns the z-score that cuts off (here) the leftmost 2.5% of the area under the unit normal curve.
  • Cell G9 contains the formula =NORM.S.INV(F9). It returns the z-score that cuts off (here) the leftmost 97.5% of the area under the unit normal curve.

Now we have in cell G8 and G9 the z-scores—the standard deviations in the unit normal distribution—that border the leftmost 2.5% and rightmost 2.5% of the distribution. To get those z-scores into the unit of measurement we're using—a measure of the amount of HDL in the blood—it's necessary to multiply the z-scores by the standard error of the mean, and add and subtract that from the sample mean. This formula does the addition part in cell G11:

  • =B2+(G8*C2/SQRT(COUNT(A2:A17)))

Working from the inside out, the formula does the following:

  1. Divides the standard deviation in cell C2 by the square root of the number of observations in the sample. As noted earlier, this division returns the standard error of the mean.
  2. Multiplies the standard error of the mean by the number of standard errors below the mean (-1.96) that bounds the lower 2.5% of the area under the curve. That value is in cell G8.
  3. Adds the mean of the sample, found in cell B2.

Steps 1 through 3 return the value 46.41. Note that it is identical to the lower limit returned using CONFIDENCE.NORM() in cell G4.

Similar steps are used to get the value in cell I11. The difference is that instead of adding a negative number (rendered negative by the negative z-score -1.96), the formula adds a positive number (the z-score 1.96 multiplied by the standard error returns a positive result). Note that the value in I11 is identical to the value in I4, which depends on CONFIDENCE.NORM() instead of on NORM.S.INV().

Notice that CONFIDENCE.NORM() asks you to supply three arguments:

  • Alpha, or 1 minus the confidence level—Excel can't predict with what level of confidence you want to use the interval, so you have to supply it.
  • Standard deviation—Because CONFIDENCE.NORM() uses the normal distribution as a reference to obtain the z-scores associated with different areas, it is assumed that the population standard deviation is in use. (See Chapters 8 and 9 for more on this matter.) Excel doesn't have access to the full population and thus can't calculate its standard deviation. Therefore, it relies on the user to supply that figure.
  • Size, or, more meaningfully, sample size—You aren't directing Excel's attention to the sample itself (cells A2:A17 in Figure 7.8), so Excel can't count the number of observations. You have to supply that number so that Excel can calculate the standard error of the mean.

You should use CONFIDENCE.NORM() or CONFIDENCE() if you feel comfortable with them and have no particular desire to grind it out using NORM.S.INV() and the standard error of the mean. Just remember that CONFIDENCE.NORM() and CONFIDENCE() do not return the width of the entire interval, just the width of the upper half, which is identical in a symmetric distribution to the width of the lower half.


Figure 7.9 makes two basic changes to the information in Figure 7.8: It uses the sample standard deviation in cell C2 and it uses the CONFIDENCE.T() function in cell G2. These two basic changes alter the size of the resulting confidence interval.

Figure 7.9

Figure 7.9 Other things being equal, a confidence interval constructed using the t-distribution is wider than one constructed using the normal distribution.

Notice first that the 95% confidence interval in Figure 7.9 runs from 46.01 to 68.36, whereas in Figure 7.8 it runs from 46.41 to 67.97. The confidence interval in Figure 7.8 is narrower. You can find the reason in Figure 7.3. There, you can see that there's more area under the tails of the leptokurtic distribution than under the tails of the normal distribution. You have to go out farther from the mean of a leptokurtic distribution to capture, say, 95% of its area between its tails. Therefore, the limits of the interval are farther from the mean and the confidence interval is wider.

Because you use the t-distribution when you don't know the population standard deviation, using CONFIDENCE.T() instead of CONFIDENCE.NORM() brings about a wider confidence interval.

The shift from the normal distribution to the t-distribution also appears in the formulas in cells G8 and G9 of Figure 7.9, which are:

  • =T.INV(F8,COUNT(A2:A17)-1)


  • =T.INV(F9,COUNT(A2:A17)-1)

Note that these cells use T.INV() instead of NORM.S.INV(), as is done in Figure 7.8. In addition to the probabilities in cells F8 and F9, T.INV() needs to know the degrees of freedom associated with the sample standard deviation. Recall from Chapter 3 that a sample's standard deviation uses in its denominator the number of observations minus 1. When you supply the proper number of degrees of freedom, you enable Excel to use the proper t-distribution: There's a different t-distribution for every different number of degrees of freedom.

Using the Data Analysis Add-in for Confidence Intervals

Excel's Data Analysis add-in has a Descriptive Statistics tool that can be helpful when you have one or more variables to analyze. The Descriptive Statistics tool returns valuable information about a range of data, including measures of central tendency and variability, skewness and kurtosis. The tool also returns half the size of a confidence interval, just as CONFIDENCE.T() does.

To use the Descriptive Statistics tool, you must first have installed the Data Analysis add-in. Chapter 4 provides step-by-step instructions for its installation. Once this add-in is installed from the Office disc and made available to Excel, you'll find it in the Analysis group on the Ribbon's Data tab.

Once the add-in is installed and available, click Data Analysis in the Data tab's Analysis group, and choose Descriptive Statistics from the Data Analysis list box. Click OK to get the Descriptive Statistics dialog box shown in Figure 7.10.

Figure 7.10

Figure 7.10 The Descriptive Statistics tool is a handy way to get information quickly on the measures of central tendency and variability of one or more variables.

To get descriptive statistics such as the mean, skewness, count, and so on, be sure to fill the Summary Statistics check box. To get the confidence interval, fill the Confidence Level for Mean check box and enter a confidence level such as 90, 95, or 99 in the associated edit box.

If your data has a header cell and you have included it in the Input Range edit box, fill the Labels check box; this informs Excel to use that value as a label in the output and not to try to use it as an input value.

When you click OK, you get output that resembles the report shown in Figure 7.11.

Figure 7.11

Figure 7.11 The output consists solely of static values. There are no formulas, so nothing recalculates automatically if you change the input data.

Notice that the value in cell D16 is the same as the value in cell G2 of Figure 7.9. The value 11.17 is what you add and subtract from the sample mean to get the full confidence interval.

The output label for the confidence interval is mildly misleading. Using standard terminology, the confidence level is not the value you use to get the full confidence interval (here, 11.17); rather, it is the probability (or, equivalently, the area under the curve) that you choose as a measure of the precision of your estimate and the likelihood that the confidence interval is one that captures the population mean. In Figure 7.11, the confidence level is 95%.

Confidence Intervals and Hypothesis Testing

Both conceptually and mathematically, confidence intervals are closely related to hypothesis testing. As you'll see in the next two chapters, you often test a hypothesis about a sample mean and some theoretical number, or about the difference between the means of two different samples. In cases like those you might use the normal distribution or the closely related t-distribution to make a statement such as, "The null hypothesis is rejected; the probability that the two means come from the same distribution is less than 0.05."

That statement is in effect the same as saying, "The mean of the second sample is outside a 95% confidence interval constructed around the mean of the first sample."

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