Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I'm looking for fresh examples of Simpson's paradox for use in my statistics courses. The examples I've been using are fine, but I'd like to have some new ones, and I'm hoping folks here might know a few.

I'm familiar with the ones on the Wikipedia page: the gender bias lawsuit at Berkeley, batting averages, mortality rates among low birth babies, party voting on the Civil Rights Act, and success rates of kidney stone treatments. I'm also familiar with the example of survival rates on the Titanic and the one about delayed flights at America West vs. Alaska Airlines. These are all good ones, but, like I said, I'm looking for more. Does anybody know any others?

For those who aren't familiar with it, Simpson's paradox is essentially a property of unreduced fractions: It's possible to have, simultaneously, $$\frac{a_1}{b_1} < \frac{c_1}{d_1} \text{ and } \frac{a_2}{b_2} < \frac{c_2}{d_2}, \text{ but } \frac{a_1 + a_2}{b_1+b_2} > \frac{c_1+c_2}{d_1+d_2}.$$

For example, $\frac{1}{3} < \frac{34}{100}$ and $\frac{66}{100} < \frac{2}{3}$, but $\frac{67}{103} > \frac{36}{103}$. It can be hard to spot this happening in a given real-world scenario.

share|cite|improve this question
This may be better for stats.SE. – cardinal Nov 19 '11 at 22:36
How serious/provocative of an example are you looking for? – cardinal Nov 19 '11 at 22:36
@cardinal: Something I can use in an undergraduate stats class. So some provocation (e.g., gender bias, class issues, as in the examples above) is good, because it gets their attention, but I don't want to offend anyone, either. And not-so-serious examples can be good, too, since the students often enjoy them. I don't want to insult their intelligence by giving them something frivolous, though. I'd like some new examples along the lines of those in the post. – Mike Spivey Nov 19 '11 at 22:41
@cardinal: I did think about posting it at stats.SE. I think (hope) there are enough people on this site who know enough about statistics that I'll get some good responses, though. I also think there are enough people here who teach intro stats but who are primarily mathematicians (and so don't hang out on stats.SE) that there would be sufficiently many people here who were glad I asked it here. If I don't get much response, though, I'll ask for it to be migrated. – Mike Spivey Nov 19 '11 at 22:47
up vote 17 down vote accepted

Example: Effect of race on death-penalty sentences in Florida murder cases.

NB: This is adapted from Subsection 2.3.2 of A. Agresti (2002), Categorical Data Analysis, 2nd ed., Wiley, pp. 48-51.

In a 1991 study by Radelet and Pierce of the effect of race on death-penalty sentences, the following table was obtained tabulating the death-penalty sentences ($\text{Death}$) and non-death-penalty sentences ($\text{No death}$) in murder convictions in the state of Florida. $$ \begin{array}{lrrr} \text{Defendant's race} & \text{Death} & \text{No death} & \text{Percent death} \\ \hline \text{Caucasian} & 53 & 430 & 11.0 \\ \text{African-American} & 15 & 176 & 7.9 \end{array} $$

From this table, we see Caucasian defendants received the death penalty more often than African-American defendants.

Now, we consider the very same data, except that we stratify according to the race of the victim of the murder. Below is the table.

$$ \begin{array}{llrrr} \text{Victim's race} & \text{Defendant's race} & \text{Death} & \text{No death} & \text{Percent death} \\ \hline \text{Caucasian} & \text{Caucasian} & 53 & 414 & 11.3 \\ \text{Caucasian} & \text{African-American} & 11 & 37 & 22.9 \\ \text{African-American} & \text{Caucasian} & 0 & 16 & 0.0 \\ \text{African-American} & \text{African-American} & 4 & 139 & 2.8 \end{array} $$

Here we see that when considering the cases involving Caucasian victims separately from the cases involving African-American victims, that the African-American defendants are more likely than Caucasian ones to receive the death penalty in both instances (22.9% vs 11.3% in the first case and 2.8% vs. 0.0% in the second case).

Thus, this is a clear instance of Simpson's paradox.

(A similar previous study in 1981 by Radelet observed the same effect.)

share|cite|improve this answer
Thanks for that example. I guess the underlying explanation is that people of one race are more likely to murder others of the same race (presumably because they are more in contact with each other), and that murdering a Caucasian is more likely to result in the death penalty than murdering an African-American. (Yikes.) – Mike Spivey Nov 20 '11 at 3:47
Yes, though we should always be careful that there might be, say, a third (hidden) variable that could cause the association to flip again once observed and accounted for. There are some results showing that any such variable would have to be very strongly associated to the aforementioned ones. – cardinal Nov 20 '11 at 5:10
Your last remark also provides a potentially useful pedagogical moment. Notice that no Simpson's paradox is present when looking at the association of victim's race with death-penalty sentences of the defendants. – cardinal Nov 20 '11 at 5:16

Sailors in the U.S. Navy who went overboard at sea were found to be more likely to be rescued if they were not wearing life jackets than if they were. The explanation was that they wore life jackets in bad weather but not in good weather. In either good weather or bad, they were more likely to be rescued while wearing life jackets, but overall, they were more likely to be rescued while not wearing life jackets. The data are in an introductory text by Danny Kaplan, which I don't have before me.

Here's an artificial example. Imagine two major-league baseball players, Puckett and Smith. Puckett has 600 at-bats during the season and gets 200 hits, for a .333 season average. Smith gets called up to the majors in time for the last game of the season, has three at-bats, and gets three hits, for a season-average of 1.000. Thus Smith's batting average for the season is higher than Puckett's. The next year, Smith has 500 at-bats and gets 125 hits, for an average of .250. Puckett plays in the first game and the next morning gets hit by a truck while crossing the street, and can't play for the rest of the season. He gets no hits in the first game. So once again, Smith's average for the season is higher than Puckett's. Two years in a row, Smith's average was higher than Puckett's. But Puckett's average for the two seasons combined is higher than Smiths.

share|cite|improve this answer
I already give the batting average example in my question. – Mike Spivey Nov 19 '11 at 22:48
Thanks for the sailors example, though, and the reference. – Mike Spivey Nov 19 '11 at 22:48

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.