What Is a Mean in Psychology?

How to calculate the mean or average.
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In statistics, the mean is the mathematical average of a set of numbers. The average is calculated by adding up two or more scores and dividing the total by the number of scores.

Consider the following set of five numbers: 2, 4, 6, 9, 12. The mean is calculated in the following manner:

  • 2 + 4 + 6 + 9 + 12 = 33
  • 33 / 5 = 6.6

So the mean of the number set is 6.6.

Why Psychologists Care About the Mean

If you are taking a psychology class, you might be wondering why your instructor wants you to know so much about statistical concepts such as the mean, median, mode, and range. The reason for this is that psychologists utilize such numbers to help make sense of the data collected through research.

Imagine, for example, that a psychologist is doing research on sleep habits among college students. They hand out a form to a random sample of 100 university students who track how much they sleep each night for a period of 30 days.

Once data has been collected, a researcher has a great deal of information. But now they need to make sense of this information and determine how to present it in a meaningful way. A mean can help do that.

The first thing this psychologist might do is take a look at the data collected from each individual student. They might want to look at things such as the range of data (the smallest amount of sleep the student got to the most amount of sleep the student reported), but one of the most helpful numbers to look at is the average amount of sleep that the student got per night over the course of the month.

In order to accomplish this, they would start by adding up each number and then dividing by the total number of data points. In this case, the study period had 30 nights, so they would add up the hours of each night's sleep and then divide that total number by 30. This value represents the mean, or average number, of hours of sleep that each particular student reported over the course of the month.

Once the researcher has calculated a mean for each student, they might want to then report the range of values or the median (or most frequently occurring number). They could even combine all of the students' mean hours of sleep into an overall average for the entire group.


The mean is helpful because it provides a single, typical value to represent an entire data set. It represents the arithmetic average and is one of several different ways to determine central tendency.

Mean vs. Other Measures of Central Tendency

The mean is just one type of measure of central tendency. In other words, psychologists are often interested in looking at how data points tend to group around a central value.

By understanding this central value, researchers are able to get a better idea about what is considered expected or normal for a particular group as a whole. However, it is important to understand how outliers can affect the mean.

The mean can be influenced by extreme data points. If most tend to fall within a certain range, but a few data points are either very high or very low, the mean might not be a good reflection of what is really happening with the data.

Consider your own grades on exams in your psychology class, for example. Imagine that you have taken four tests so far with scores of 96%, 98%, 94%, and 100%. Unfortunately, you were not feeling well before your last exam and did not have enough time to prepare, and ended up failing the test with a score of 14%. While the rest of your exams scores represent solid work, that one extremely low score drags your mean score down to 80.4%.

For this reason, researchers might also look at a different measure to determine central tendency. In this case, the median score, or an average of the two most central scores, would be a more accurate way to determine central tendency.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is the median calculated?

    The median is calculated by taking the two most middle scores in a data set, adding them together, and dividing them by two.

  • Average vs. mean: Are they the same?

    The mean and average usually mean the same thing. The term usually indicates the arithmetic average. There are other types of means, however, including the weighted mean, geometric mean, and harmonic mean.

  • Are there other ways to ways to study central tendency besides the mean?

    In addition to look at the mean or median, psychology researchers may also consider the mode. The mode is the score that occurs most frequently in a data set.

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2 Sources
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  1. Speelman CP, McGann M. How mean is the mean? Front Psychol. 2013;4. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00451

  2. Manikandan S. Measures of central tendency: The mean. J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2011;2(2):140-2. doi:10.4103/0976-500X.81920