Family-wise error rate

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In statistics, family-wise error rate (FWER) is the probability of making one or more false discoveries, or type I errors when performing multiple hypotheses tests.


Tukey coined the terms experimentwise error rate and "error rate per-experiment" to indicate error rates that the researcher could use as a control level in a multiple hypothesis experiment.[citation needed]


Within the statistical framework, there are several definitions for the term "family":

  • Hochberg & Tamhane defined "family" in 1987 as "any collection of inferences for which it is meaningful to take into account some combined measure of error".[1][page needed]
  • According to Cox in 1982, a set of inferences should be regarded a family:[citation needed]
  1. To take into account the selection effect due to data dredging
  2. To ensure simultaneous correctness of a set of inferences as to guarantee a correct overall decision

To summarize, a family could best be defined by the potential selective inference that is being faced: A family is the smallest set of items of inference in an analysis, interchangeable about their meaning for the goal of research, from which selection of results for action, presentation or highlighting could be made (Yoav Benjamini).[citation needed]

Classification of multiple hypothesis tests[edit]

The following table defines the possible outcomes when testing multiple null hypotheses. Suppose we have a number m of multiple null hypotheses, denoted by: H1H2, ..., Hm. Using a statistical test, we reject the null hypothesis if the test is declared significant. We do not reject the null hypothesis if the test is non-significant. Summing the test results over Hi  will give us the following table and related random variables:

Null hypothesis is true (H0) Alternative hypothesis is true (HA) Total
Test is declared significant
Test is declared non-significant
  • is the total number hypotheses tested
  • is the number of true null hypotheses, an unknown parameter
  • is the number of true alternative hypotheses
  • is the number of false positives (Type I error) (also called "false discoveries")
  • is the number of true positives (also called "true discoveries")
  • is the number of false negatives (Type II error)
  • is the number of true negatives
  • is the number of rejected null hypotheses (also called "discoveries", either true or false)

In hypothesis tests of which are true null hypotheses, is an observable random variable, and , , , and are unobservable random variables.


The FWER is the probability of making at least one type I error in the family,

or equivalently,

Thus, by assuring , the probability of making one or more type I errors in the family is controlled at level .[citation needed]

A procedure controls the FWER in the weak sense if the FWER control at level is guaranteed only when all null hypotheses are true (i.e. when , meaning the "global null hypothesis" is true).[citation needed]

A procedure controls the FWER in the strong sense if the FWER control at level is guaranteed for any configuration of true and non-true null hypotheses (whether the global null hypothesis is true or not).[citation needed]

Controlling procedures[edit]

For a broader coverage related to this topic, see Multiple testing correction.
Further information: List of post hoc tests

Some classical solutions that ensure strong level FWER control, and some newer solutions exist.

The Bonferroni procedure[edit]

Main article: Bonferroni correction
  • Denote by the p-value for testing
  • reject if

The Šidák procedure[edit]

Main article: Šidák correction
  • Testing each hypothesis at level is Sidak's multiple testing procedure.
  • This procedure is more powerful than Bonferroni but the gain is small.
  • This procedure can fail to control the FWER when the tests are negatively dependent.

Tukey's procedure[edit]

Main article: Tukey's range test
  • Tukey's procedure is only applicable for pairwise comparisons.[citation needed]
  • It assumes independence of the observations being tested, as well as equal variation across observations (homoscedasticity).[citation needed]
  • The procedure calculates for each pair the studentized range statistic: where is the larger of the two means being compared, is the smaller, and is the standard error of the data in question.[citation needed]
  • Tukey's test is essentially a Student's t-test, except that it corrects for family-wise error-rate.[citation needed]

Holm's step-down procedure (1979)[edit]

  • Start by ordering the p-values (from lowest to highest) and let the associated hypotheses be
  • Let be the minimal index such that
  • Reject the null hypotheses . If then none of the hypotheses are rejected.[citation needed]

This procedure is uniformly more powerful than the Bonferroni procedure.[2] The reason why this procedure controls the family-wise error rate for all the m hypotheses at level α in the strong sense is, because it is a closed testing procedure. As such, each intersection is tested using the simple Bonferroni test.[citation needed]

Hochberg's step-up procedure[edit]

Hochberg's step-up procedure (1988) is performed using the following steps:[3]

  • Start by ordering the p-values (from lowest to highest) and let the associated hypotheses be
  • For a given , let be the largest such that
  • Reject the null hypotheses

Hochberg's procedure is more powerful than Holms'. Nevertheless, while Holm’s is a closed testing procedure (and thus, like Bonferroni, has no restriction on the joint distribution of the test statistics), Hochberg’s is based on the Simes test, so it holds only under non-negative dependence.[citation needed]

Dunnett's correction[edit]

Main article: Dunnett's test

Charles Dunnett (1955, 1966) described an alternative alpha error adjustment when k groups are compared to the same control group. Now known as Dunnett's test, this method is less conservative than the Bonferroni adjustment.[citation needed]

Scheffé's method[edit]

Main article: Scheffé's method

Resampling procedures[edit]

The procedures of Bonferroni and Holm control the FWER under any dependence structure of the p-values (or equivalently the individual test statistics). Essentially, this is achieved by accommodating a `worst-case' dependence structure (which is close to independence for most practical purposes). But such an approach is conservative if dependence is actually positive. To give an extreme example, under perfect positive dependence, there is effectively only one test and thus, the FWER is uninflated.

Accounting for the dependence structure of the p-values (or of the individual test statistics) produces more powerful procedures. This can be achieved by applying resampling methods, such as bootstrapping and permutations methods. The procedure of Westfall and Young (1993) requires a certain condition that does not always hold in practice (namely, subset pivotality).[4] The procedures of Romano and Wolf (2005a,b) dispense with this condition and are thus more generally valid.[5][6]

Alternative approaches[edit]

Further information: False discovery rate

FWER control exerts a more stringent control over false discovery compared to false discovery rate (FDR) procedures. FWER control limits the probability of at least one false discovery, whereas FDR control limits (in a loose sense) the expected proportion of false discoveries. Thus, FDR procedures have greater power at the cost of increased rates of type I errors, i.e., rejecting null hypotheses that are actually true.[7]

On the other hand, FWER control is less stringent than per-family error rate control, which limits the expected number of errors per family. Because FWER control is concerned with at least one false discovery, unlike per-family error rate control it does not treat multiple simultaneous false discoveries as any worse than one false discovery. The Bonferroni correction is often considered as merely controlling the FWER, but in fact also controls the per-family error rate.[8]


  1. ^ Hochberg, Y.; Tamhane, A. C. (1987). Multiple Comparison Procedures. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-82222-1. 
  2. ^ Aickin, M; Gensler, H (1996). "Adjusting for multiple testing when reporting research results: the Bonferroni vs Holm methods". American Journal of Public Health. 86 (5): 726–728. doi:10.2105/ajph.86.5.726. PMC 1380484Freely accessible. PMID 8629727. 
  3. ^ Hochberg, Yosef (1988). "A Sharper Bonferroni Procedure for Multiple Tests of Significance" (PDF). Biometrika. 75 (4): 800–802. doi:10.1093/biomet/75.4.800. 
  4. ^ Westfall, P. H.; Young, S. S. (1993). Resampling-Based Multiple Testing: Examples and Methods for p-Value Adjustment. New York: John Wiley. ISBN 0-471-55761-7. 
  5. ^ Romano, J.P.; Wolf, M. (2005a). "Exact and approximate stepdown methods for multiple hypothesis testing". Journal of the American Statistical Association. 100: 94–108. doi:10.1198/016214504000000539. 
  6. ^ Romano, J.P.; Wolf, M. (2005b). "Stepwise multiple testing as formalized data snooping". Econometrica. 73: 1237–1282. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0262.2005.00615.x. 
  7. ^ Shaffer, J. P. (1995). "Multiple hypothesis testing". Annual Review of Psychology. 46: 561–584. doi:10.1146/ 
  8. ^ Frane, Andrew (2015). "Are per-family Type I error rates relevant in social and behavioral science?". Journal of Modern Applied Statistical Methods. 14 (1): 12–23.