How to Determine Variability in a Dataset

The central tendency, mean, median, and mode depict where most data points concentrate, while variability illustrates how far they are. It is exceedingly crucial because the amount of variability demonstrates the generalization one can make from the sample to the population. Low variability is desirable because it implies that predicting information about the population using sample data is well-justified. Contrarily, high variability illustrates decreased consistency, making data predictions harder.


How to Determine Variability in a Dataset

Variability measures: Range, Interquartile Range, Variance, and Standard Deviation

Variability is about how far data points are from each other and the mean. In addition to measures of central tendency, variability measures are other critical, descriptive statistics epitomizing your data.

Variability can also be expressed as spread, scatter, or dispersion. We use the following variables to measure the variability. The first measure is the range, the difference between the highest and lowest values in a given data set. However, the interquartile range yields the middle half of the distribution. In other words, it is the difference between the upper and lower quartiles. The standard deviation is the most used variability, calculated by determining the average distance from the mean. Variance is a derived measure and can be calculated by taking the square of the standard deviation.

What makes variability utterly critical?

The central tendency, mean, median, and mode depict where most data points concentrate, while variability illustrates how far they are. It is exceedingly crucial because the amount of variability demonstrates the generalization one can make from the sample to the population.

Low variability is desirable because it implies that predicting information about the population using sample data is well-justified. Contrarily, high variability illustrates decreased consistency, making data predictions harder.

Some data sets may have the same central tendency with different levels of variability. The reverse can also be true. Suppose you know the central tendency or the variability but not both; you cannot interpret the other. Thus, they both complete your data assessment.


The range depicts the difference between the maximum and minimum values in the distribution. Even though it is easily calculated, it may not reflect the overall trend in the data because it only considers the highest and lowest values in the data set, not yielding any information on the other values in the data set.

Interquartile range

Theinterquartile range differs from the range in that it gives you the variation in the middle of your distribution. It tells us more about the distribution because it contains half of the values in the middle. After calculating the first and third quartile in your data set, you can determine the interquartile range by subtracting the higher value from the lower one. The first quartile includes the first 25% of the values, while the third quartile encompasses the last 25%. Even though the interquartile range only involves the difference between the two values, it is more robust against outliers because they portray the middle half of the data set. Therefore, the interquartile range is reliable in both normal and skewed distributions.

Five-number summary

For every distribution, afive-number summary can be calculated. It includes the minimum, the lower quartile, the median, the upper quartile, and the maximum. The five-number summaries can be readily depicted with box and whisker plots.

Standard deviation

The standard deviation shows the average amount of variability in the dataset. Therefore, it illustrates, on average, the distance of each score lies from the mean. As the standard deviation, so is the variability in the data set.


Variance demonstrates the degree of spread for a given data set, suggesting that a greater spread would imply a larger variation for the mean. The varianceis calculated by squaring the standard deviation. It has a different unit from the standard deviation, making its interpretation more challenging. However, it is beneficial for some crucial analyses, such as Analysis of Variance, where the whole analysis depends on the ratio between-group and within-group variance. 

How can we determine the ideal measure of variability?

Determining the ideal measure of variability depends on the level of measurement and distribution. For the data measured at an ordinal level, the appropriate measures of variability include the range and interquartile range. In contrast, the standard deviation and variance can also be calculated at interval and ratio levels.

The relevance of distribution

All measures can be employed for normal distributions. The standard deviation and variance should be preferred because they consider all the data in a set but simultaneously suggest that outliers can affect them. However, the interquartile range is most reliable when the distribution is skewed because the outliers do not affect this variable.

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