In mathematics and statistics, the arithmetic mean (, stress on first and third syllables of "arithmetic"), or simply the mean or the average (when the context is clear), is the sum of a collection of numbers divided by the count of numbers in the collection. The collection is often a set of results of an experiment or an observational study, or frequently a set of results from a survey. The term "arithmetic mean" is preferred in some contexts in mathematics and statistics, because it helps distinguish it from other means, such as the geometric mean and the harmonic mean.
In addition to mathematics and statistics, the arithmetic mean is used frequently in many diverse fields such as economics, anthropology and history, and it is used in almost every academic field to some extent. For example, per capita income is the arithmetic average income of a nation's population.
While the arithmetic mean is often used to report central tendencies, it is not a robust statistic, meaning that it is greatly influenced by outliers (values that are very much larger or smaller than most of the values). Notably, for skewed distributions, such as the distribution of income for which a few people's incomes are substantially greater than most people's, the arithmetic mean may not coincide with one's notion of "middle", and robust statistics, such as the median, may provide better description of central tendency.
The arithmetic mean is the most commonly used and readily understood measure of central tendency in a data set. In statistics, the term average refers to any of the measures of central tendency. The arithmetic mean of a set of observed data is defined as being equal to the sum of the numerical values of each and every observation, divided by the total number of observations. Symbolically, if we have a data set consisting of the values , then the arithmetic mean is defined by the formula:
For example, consider the monthly salary of 10 employees of a firm: 2500, 2700, 2400, 2300, 2550, 2650, 2750, 2450, 2600, 2400. The arithmetic mean is
If the data set is a statistical population (i.e., consists of every possible observation and not just a subset of them), then the mean of that population is called the population mean, and denoted by the Greek letter . If the data set is a statistical sample (a subset of the population), then we call the statistic resulting from this calculation a sample mean (which for a data set is denoted as ).
The arithmetic mean can be similarly defined for vectors in multiple dimension, not only scalar values; this is often referred to as a centroid. More generally, because the arithmetic mean is a convex combination (coefficients sum to 1), it can be defined on a convex space, not only a vector space.
The arithmetic mean has several properties that make it useful, especially as a measure of central tendency. These include:
The arithmetic mean may be contrasted with the median. The median is defined such that no more than half the values are larger than, and no more than half are smaller than, the median. If elements in the data increase arithmetically, when placed in some order, then the median and arithmetic average are equal. For example, consider the data sample . The average is , as is the median. However, when we consider a sample that cannot be arranged so as to increase arithmetically, such as , the median and arithmetic average can differ significantly. In this case, the arithmetic average is 6.2, while the median is 4. In general, the average value can vary significantly from most values in the sample, and can be larger or smaller than most of them.
There are applications of this phenomenon in many fields. For example, since the 1980s, the median income in the United States has increased more slowly than the arithmetic average of income.
A weighted average, or weighted mean, is an average in which some data points count more heavily than others, in that they are given more weight in the calculation. For example, the arithmetic mean of and is , or equivalently . In contrast, a weighted mean in which the first number receives, for example, twice as much weight as the second (perhaps because it is assumed to appear twice as often in the general population from which these numbers were sampled) would be calculated as . Here the weights, which necessarily sum to the value one, are and , the former being twice the latter. The arithmetic mean (sometimes called the "unweighted average" or "equally weighted average") can be interpreted as a special case of a weighted average in which all the weights are equal to each other (equal to in the above example, and equal to in a situation with numbers being averaged).
If a numerical property, and any sample of data from it, could take on any value from a continuous range, instead of, for example, just integers, then the probability of a number falling into some range of possible values can be described by integrating a continuous probability distribution across this range, even when the naive probability for a sample number taking one certain value from infinitely many is zero. The analog of a weighted average in this context, in which there are an infinite number of possibilities for the precise value of the variable in each range, is called the mean of the probability distribution. A most widely encountered probability distribution is called the normal distribution; it has the property that all measures of its central tendency, including not just the mean but also the aforementioned median and the mode (the three M's), are equal to each other. This equality does not hold for other probability distributions, as illustrated for the lognormal distribution here.
Particular care must be taken when using cyclic data, such as phases or angles. Naively taking the arithmetic mean of 1° and 359° yields a result of 180°. This is incorrect for two reasons:
In general application, such an oversight will lead to the average value artificially moving towards the middle of the numerical range. A solution to this problem is to use the optimization formulation (viz., define the mean as the central point: the point about which one has the lowest dispersion), and redefine the difference as a modular distance (i.e., the distance on the circle: so the modular distance between 1° and 359° is 2°, not 358°).
Some software (text processors, web browsers) may not display the x? symbol properly. For example, the x? symbol in HTML is actually a combination of two codes - the base letter x plus a code for the line above (̄ or ¯).