KNOWLEDGEBASE - ARTICLE #1710

Why it is not helpful to compute the power of an experiment to detect the difference actually observed? Why is post-hoc power analysis futile?

Last modified May 3, 2011

It is never possible to just ask "what is the power of this experimental design?". That question is simply meaningless.

Rather, you must ask "what is the power of this experimental design to detect an effect of a specified size?". The effect size might be a difference between two means, a relative risk, or some other measure of treatment effect.

Which effect size should you calculate power for? How large a difference should you be looking for? These are not statistical questions, but rather scientific questions. It only makes sense to do a power analysis when you think about the data scientifically. It makes sense to compute the power of a study design to detect an effect that is the smallest effect you'd care about. Or it makes sense to compute the power of a study to find an effect size determined by a prior study. 

What is the study is already completed. Some programs augment their results by reporting the power to detect the effect size (or difference, relative risk, etc.) actually observed in that particular experiment. The result is sometimes called observed power, and the procedure is sometimes called a post-hoc power analysis or retrospective power analysis

Many (perhaps most) statisticians (and I agree) think that these computations are useless and misleading. If your study reached a conclusion that the difference is not statistically significant, then -- by definition-- its power to detect the effect actually observed is very low. You learn nothing new by such a calculation. It can be useful to compute the power of the study to detect a difference that would have been scientifically or clinically worth detecting. It is not worthwhile to compute the power of the study to detect the difference (or effect) actually observed.

Hoenig and Helsey (2001) pointed out that the observed power can be computed from the observed P value as well as the value of alpha you choose (usually 0.05). When the P value is 0.05 (assuming you define statistical significance to mean P<0.05, so have set alpha to 0.05), then the power must be 50%. If the P value is smaller than 0.05, the observed power is greater than 50%. If the P value is greater than 0.05, then the observed power is less than 50%. The observed power conveys no new information. The figure below (from Hoenig and Helsey, 2001) shows the relationship between P value and observed power, when alpha is set to 0.05.

    

 

References

These articles discuss the futility of post-hoc power analyses: 

 

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