# Why Divide Sample Standard Deviation by n-1?

## The problem

The standard deviation is a measurement of the spread of the data — it is the average distance of the data from the mean.

We are rarely interested in the amount of variation in our sample: the sample standard deviation is only useful as an approximation of the population standard deviation.

When our sample is the whole population of interest, then the formula for the standard deviation is:

$$\sigma = \sqrt{\frac{\sum_{i=1}^{N}(x_i-\mu)^2}{N}}$$

Where:

• σ is the population standard deviation.
• xi is a data point.
• µ is the population mean.
• N is the population size.

But the problem is that most of the time, our sample is only a small subset of the population, so we do not know the value of µ. Instead, we want to use x̄ (the sample mean) as an approximation of µ.

## Intuition

If we want to estimate the average distance of the data from µ (i.e. when we want to estimate the population standard deviation), we will have to account for 2 things:

• the average distance of the data from x̄ (i.e. the sample standard deviation), and
• the average distance of x̄ from µ.

So, the sample standard deviation (i.e. division by n) will be an underestimation of true standard deviation of the population. To correct for this underestimation, we divide by a smaller number, n-1, to get:

$$s = \sqrt{\frac{\sum_{i=1}^{n}(x_i-\bar{x})^2}{n-1}}$$

Where:

• s is the sample standard deviation.
• xi is a data point.
• x̄ is the sample mean.
• n is the sample size.

## R simulation

Here’s a simulation in R to prove that dividing by n-1 provides a better estimation of the population standard deviation.

First, let’s create the population:

# create a population of 1000 observations
set.seed(1)

N = 1000
pop = runif(n = N, min = 1, max = 100)

# calculate the population mean
mean(pop) # 50.46948

# calculate the population standard deviation
sqrt(sum( (pop - mean(pop))^2 ) / N) # 28.53604

So, the true (population) standard deviation is 28.54.

Now, let’s take some samples from this population and try different ways of calculating the sample standard deviation to see which one is the closest to 28.54:

# create 10,000 samples of 30 observations each
# and calculate the standard deviation
n = 30

# dividing by n
sd_n = replicate(10000, { # repeat 10,000 times
s = sample(pop, n) # take a sample
sqrt(sum( (s - mean(s))^2) / n) # calculate sd
})

# dividing by n-1
sd_nMinus1 = replicate(10000, { # repeat 10,000 times
s = sample(pop, n) # take a sample
sqrt(sum( (s - mean(s))^2) / (n-1)) # calculate sd
})

# dividing by n, but using the true population mean
sd_n_popMean = replicate(10000, { # repeat 10,000 times
s = sample(pop, n) # take a sample
sqrt(sum( (s - mean(pop))^2) / n) # calculate sd using the pop mean
})

# average results of the simulations
mean(sd_n) # 27.96303
mean(sd_nMinus1) # 28.46863
mean(sd_n_popMean) # 28.42268

This proves that dividing by n-1 when calculating the sample standard deviation yields a better estimation of the population standard deviation. This is only true when we use the sample mean as an estimation of the population mean. If the population mean is known, there is no need for the “n-1” correction.