What is a chi-squared test and when would you use it?

Take a look at the table below. It describes a relatively common situation in business analytics. Two offers have been made to a sample of 40,000 prospective readers of a magazine. As an experiment, half of the prospects have been offered a 25% discount for the first year and the other half have been offered an extended subscription of 15 months (rather than the normal 12 months).

chi squared example

The table seems to indicate a slight increase in the response rate (a mere 0.4%) for those offered the extended subscription. The business analysts want to know how probable it is that this is simply a random effect or whether the extended subscription is indeed more likely to elicit a response. If by this stage you are thinking that a tiny difference of 0.4% really isn’t worth bothering about, you might want to consult this article.

In modern parlance, this type of problem is commonly referred to as A/B testing but in reality the methods used to address it are over 100 years old. One such approach is apply a test of statistical significance such as the Pearson Chi Squared test. Generally speaking, tests like chi-squared are used to examine differences with between fields with different categories.

Without getting too deep into the technicalities of how it is calculated, the Chi squared value is derived by comparing the frequency values (count) that we observe in a table and the expected frequencies that we would expect to see if there was no bias towards one group or another. If we flip a coin a 100 times and the outcome is 54 ‘heads’ and 46 ‘tails’ we may not instinctively be able to calculate the probability that the coin is biased but we know that if it wasn’t biased, on average we should see a 50/50 outcome: this represents our expected frequency.

Let’s look at the table again, but this time we can compare the observed and the expected frequencies (which are shown in red).

chi squared example 2


We can see that the 25% discount offer elicited 39 fewer responses than would be expected if both offers had the same effect (whereas the exact opposite is true of the extended subscription offer). The Chi-Squared calculation sums these differences between the observed and expected counts and then (with a few adjustments depending on the method used) calculates the probability that the differences we have observed in the table are the result of random chance rather than a real effect that is likely to exist in the population of all potential magazine subscribers. In other words, it indicates whether the extended subscription offer is likely to be more tempting to prospects than the 25% discount offer. The table below shows the results of the Chi-Squared test.

chi squared example 3

The value that we need to focus on is in the row marked ‘Sig.’. This is an estimate of probability.  In this instance, a probability value of 0.031 indicates that the differences between the groups are sufficiently large that we would only expect to observe this 3.1% of the time randomly. In short, the difference between the response rates for the two offers is not very likely to be the result of mere chance.

So how small does the probability have to be before you come to this conclusion? Well, that depends on the context of the analysis, but generally a value less than 0.05 (or 5%) is regarded as small enough to be viewed as ‘statistically significant’.  In this case the business analysts could conclude that there is good evidence to suggest that the extended subscription offer is likely to yield slightly more customers than offering a 25% discount.

The chi-squared test is extremely easy to apply and is just one of many tests provided in IBM SPSS Statistics. SPSS Statistics is available from less than £80 per month – check out our SPSS rental page for more information. We can also provide tailored consultancy, training and support to help you with any statistical analysis through our SPSS Boost service. For more information email us or call 0207 786 3568



1 thought on “What is a chi-squared test and when would you use it?”

  1. Interesting article Mr. Quinn. One of the problems of Chi-square and Chi-square based measures is that they are effected by n and by table size. As a result, when using Chi-square would you not apply some sort of control or alternate test to try and deal with that? In this case, I may look at Phi or Cramer’s. In other cases one could use a correction such as Bonferroni (realizing that can be conservative in cases where there are large numbers of tests, or positive correlation of the test statistics). I suppose the other way to look at this is to take an ecological significance approach; you are getting 78 more responses with an extended subscription and is that good enough for your business objectives? I have enjoyed reading your columns; keep it up!

Comments are closed.

Download your free copy of our Understanding Significance Testing white paper
Subscribe to our email newsletter today to receive updates on the latest news, tutorials and events, and get your free copy of our latest white paper.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will never be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.
WordPress Popup Plugin
Scroll to Top