The **confidence interval **is the plus-or-minus figure usually reported in newspaper or television opinion poll results. For example, if you use a confidence interval of 4 and 47% percent of your sample picks an answer you can be “sure” that if you had asked the question of the entire relevant population between 43% (47-4) and 51% (47+4) would have picked that answer.

The **confidence level** tells you how sure you can be. It is expressed as a percentage and represents how often the true percentage of the population who would pick an answer that lies within the confidence interval. The 95% confidence level means you can be 95% certain; the 99% confidence level means you can be 99% certain. Most researchers work for a 95% confidence level.

When you put the confidence level and the confidence interval together, you can say that you are 95% sure that the true percentage of the population is between 43% and 51%.

**Factors that Affect Confidence Intervals **

The confidence interval is based on the margin of error. There are three factors that determine the size of the **confidence interval** for a given **confidence level**. These are: **sample size**, **percentage** and **population size**.

**Sample Size **

The larger your sample, the more sure you can be that their answers truly reflect the population. This indicates that for a given **confidence level**, the larger your sample size, the smaller your **confidence interval**. However, the relationship is not linear (i.e., doubling the sample size does not halve the confidence interval).

**Percentage **

Your accuracy also depends on the percentage of your sample that picks a particular answer. If 99% of your sample said “Yes” and 1% said “No” the chances of error are remote, irrespective of sample size. However, if the percentages are 51% and 49% the chances of error are much greater. It is easier to be sure of extreme answers than of middle-of-the-road ones.

When determining the sample size needed for a given level of accuracy you must use the worst case percentage (50%). You should also use this percentage if you want to determine a general level of accuracy for a sample you already have. To determine the confidence interval for a specific answer your sample has given, you can use the percentage picking that answer and get a smaller interval.

**Population Size **

How many people are there in the group your sample represents? This may be the number of people in a city you are studying, the number of people who buy new cars, etc. Often you may not know the exact population size. This is not a problem. The mathematics of probability proves the size of the population is irrelevant, unless the size of the sample exceeds a few percent of the total population you are examining. This means that a sample of 500 people is equally useful in examining the opinions of a state of 15,000,000 as it would a city of 100,000. For this reason, the sample calculator ignores the population size when it is “large” or unknown. Population size is only likely to be a factor when you work with a relatively small and known group of people .

**Note: **

The confidence interval calculations assume you have a genuine random sample of the relevant population. If your sample is not truly random, you cannot rely on the intervals. Non-random samples usually result from some flaw in the sampling procedure. An example of such a flaw is to only call people during the day, and miss almost everyone who works. For most purposes, the non-working population cannot be assumed to accurately represent the entire (working and non-working) population.

Most information on this page was obtained from The Survey System

Del Siegle, Ph.D.

Neag School of Education – University of Connecticut

del.siegle@uconn.edu

www.delsiegle.com

updated on 1/15/2021