What is the meaning of the SD number?

The SD number is an important concept in statistics and data analysis. It stands for the standard deviation, which is a measure of how spread out a set of values are from the mean or average value. Understanding standard deviation helps data analysts quantify the amount of variation in a dataset and make comparisons between different datasets.

In simple terms, the SD number tells you how much the values in a dataset vary from the mean. A small SD number indicates the values are clustered closely around the mean. A large SD number indicates the values are spread further out from the mean.

Some quick answers to common questions about standard deviation:

What does a small SD value mean?
A small SD value means the data points are close to the mean. There is little variability in the data.

What does a large SD value mean?
A large SD value means the data points are more spread out from the mean. There is a lot of variability in the data.

Does a bigger SD mean more error?
Not necessarily. A larger SD just indicates more variation in the data, not more error. The SD quantifies scatter, not accuracy.

What is a typical SD value?
There is no one “typical” SD value. It depends on the units and distribution of the data. For normally distributed data, SD is usually between 1 and 10.

Can SD be zero?
No, the SD is always greater than zero for a dataset with any variability. An SD of zero would indicate all values are identical.

Definition of Standard Deviation

More formally, the standard deviation is defined as the square root of the variance. The variance quantifies the average squared deviation of each data point from the mean.

In mathematical terms:

SD = √Variance


Variance = Σ(x – μ)2 / N


x is each value in the dataset

μ is the mean of the dataset

N is the number of values in the dataset

Σ means to sum up the squared differences for every data point

Squaring the deviations before summing them ensures the final variance isn’t skewed by negative values cancelling out positive ones. Taking the square root at the end returns the units to the original scale.

For example, let’s calculate the standard deviation for the dataset:

{2, 4, 4, 4, 5, 5, 7, 9}

The mean is 5.

(2 – 5)2 = 9
(4 – 5)2 = 1
(4 – 5)2 = 1
(4 – 5)2 = 1
(5 – 5)2 = 0
(5 – 5)2 = 0
(7 – 5)2 = 4
(9 – 5)2 = 16

Summing and dividing by N = 8 gives a variance of 32/8 = 4. Taking the square root results in a standard deviation of 2.

So in this example, the SD of 2 indicates that typically the values fall within 2 units of the mean of 5.

Uses of Standard Deviation

The standard deviation has many uses in statistics. Some key ones include:

  • Measuring statistical dispersion: As mentioned already, the SD quantifies the amount of variation or dispersion in a dataset. A high SD means high dispersion, low SD means low dispersion.
  • Standardizing data: Data can be standardized by converting to standard deviation units. This puts different datasets on a common scale for better comparison.
  • Calculating confidence intervals: The SD is used to calculate margin of errors and construct confidence intervals around estimates.
  • Forecasting errors: In forecasting, the SD of historical forecast errors is used to estimate future forecast error distributions.
  • Setting acceptance criteria: In manufacturing, SD helps determine acceptable variances from specifications.
  • Detecting outliers: Data points that are a certain number of SD units from the mean may be flagged as potential outliers.
  • Comparing distributions: The SD can be used to compare the diversity, spread, or variability of different data distributions.
  • Estimating probabilities: For Normal distributions, SD is used to estimate ranges that capture certain probabilities.

As this list demonstrates, standard deviation forms an integral part of statistical data analysis and probability theory across many domains and applications. It provides a single consolidated metric of dispersion that enables sound quantitative analysis.

Interpreting the SD Number

When you calculate the standard deviation for a dataset, how you interpret it depends on the context. Here are some guidelines for making sense of SD values:

1. Units of measurement: Always consider the units. If the SD is 3 inches, that’s a small spread. But a SD of 3 miles is very large.

2. Distribution shape: For symmetric, bell-shaped data, about 68% of values lie within 1 SD of the mean and about 95% lie within 2 SD. The Empirical Rule provides this handy guideline for interpretation.

3. Context: Don’t just consider the number itself – think about what it means in terms of the phenomenon being studied. A SD of 2 cm may be irrelevant for length but critical for machinist tolerance specifications.

4. Benchmarks: Sometimes there are established benchmarks or thresholds that provide context. For exam scores on a standardized test, SD of 15 might be typical based on past data.

5. Outliers: Values exceeding about 2-3 SD from the mean should be investigated as potential outliers. They are well outside the “normal” range.

6 Relative comparisons: Looking at how the SD changes over time or differs between groups can be more meaningful than considering one-off values.

7. Statistical significance: When comparing SDs between datasets, check if the difference is statistically significant, meaning it is unlikely due to random chance alone.

So in summary, look at both the SD number itself and the contextual factors around it to determine whether it represents a “small” or “large” amount of variation. There are no universal thresholds – it depends on the specific dataset and application.


Here are some examples that demonstrate real-world interpretation of standard deviation values:

Test scores

On a standardized test with an average (mean) of 75 and a standard deviation of 6 points, scores between 69 and 81 (one SD away in either direction from the mean) represent the middle 68% of outcomes. Scores between 63 and 87 (two SDs from the mean) represent approximately 95% of outcomes. Test scores exceeding 87 (more than 2 SD above the mean) are unusually high while scores below 63 (more than 2 SD below the mean) are unusually low.

Stock returns

The annual returns for the S&P 500 stock index average around 8% historically, with a standard deviation of around 20 percentage points. This means in a typical year, annual returns range from -12% to 28% (one SD below or above average). For an unusually volatile year, returns could exceed 48% (two SD above average) or drop below -32% (two SD below average).

Climate variability

Based on historical records, the annual precipitation in a certain region averages 50 inches with a standard deviation of 5 inches. In a relatively dry year, rainfall could dip to 40 inches (two SD below average). In an unusually wet year, it could spike to 60 inches (two SD above normal). Climate scientists track SD metrics like this to better understand variability and predict extremes.

Manufacturing tolerance

The specifications for a mechanical part call for a thickness of 1.00 inch with a maximum tolerance of two standard deviations. If the manufacturing process has a standard deviation of 0.02 inches in part thickness, then two SD is 0.04 inches. Parts with thickness exceeding 1.04 inches or below 0.96 inches (outside the tolerance) should be rejected as defective.


When tracking community spread of illness, epidemiologists monitor the standard deviation of new case counts. A steady or declining SD indicates stable transmission, while a sharply rising SD signals surging unpredictability that may overwhelm containment efforts. The SD likewise guides allocation of medical resources.

Common Misconceptions

There are some common misconceptions concerning standard deviation:

It measures error in estimates: The SD quantifies variability, not estimation error which is different. Confusing the two can lead to wrong conclusions.

Small SD means the estimate is accurate: A small SD only indicates the values are clustered, not that the mean estimate is correct. Inaccurate data can still have small spread.

It ignores outliers: In fact, outliers inflate the SD. Trimming outliers first leads to a lower SD value.

SD can be larger than range: For small samples, the SD may exceed the full range between minimum and maximum values. In this case, use SD of the population instead.

SD is the average deviation: The average deviation is different and smaller than SD. Squaring the deviations before averaging gives more weight to large deviations in SD calculation.

Avoiding these misconceptions helps in properly collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data involving standard deviation. The key is recognizing what the SD represents (diversity of values around the mean), along with its limitations.

Limitations of Standard Deviation

While an invaluable tool, standard deviation has some limitations to keep in mind:

  • Sensitive to outliers: As mentioned already, extreme outliers can distort the SD measure.
  • Can’t guarantee normality: A small SD alone doesn’t guarantee data is normally distributed, which is often assumed.
  • Applies to quantitative data: Standard deviation lacks meaning for qualitative data on categories or attributes.
  • Hard to interpret alone: The SD value should be considered in context, not just by itself.
  • Population vs sample: For small samples, SD underestimates the variability in the overall population.
  • Missing contextual factors: Simple SD metrics omit real-world causal factors driving variability.

Due to these limitations, standard deviation is often coupled with other statistical measures and visualization methods to enable robust conclusions. Assuming normality based just on SD can be problematic. The context and purpose determine how SD is best applied in practice.

Relation to Variance and Other Measures

Beyond the core definition, standard deviation relates to other important statistical concepts:


As mentioned earlier, variance is the average of squared deviations about the mean. SD is simply the square root of variance. While SD returns values in the original units of measurement, variance results in squared units. SD is reported more often since it’s on the original scale.

Mean Absolute Deviation

Mean absolute deviation (MAD) also measures dispersion but is less influenced by outliers. MAD sums the absolute deviations rather than squaring them. This means MAD is usually smaller than SD.


The range is the simplest dispersion measure – it’s just the difference between the maximum and minimum values. Range utilizes only two values while SD incorporates all data points. For small samples though, range divided by 4 can be a reasonable estimate of SD.

Interquartile Range

The interquartile range (IQR) defines the spread between the 25th and 75th percentiles. Since it ignores the outer 25% of values, it is less sensitive to outliers than SD. IQR is another robust estimate of dispersion for skewed distributions.


When data values are converted to z-scores, the resulting distribution has a standard deviation of 1 and mean of 0. Z-scores provide a standardized way to compare values across different data sets. Any value’s z-score indicates how many SD units it falls from the mean.

Understanding where standard deviation fits alongside these other statistical measures provides a more complete toolkit for quantitative data analysis.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is standard deviation calculated?

The standard deviation is calculated by taking the square root of the variance. The variance sums up the squared differences from the mean and divides by the number of data points. SD = √Variance.

What does one standard deviation cover?

For a normal distribution, about 68% of values fall within one standard deviation of the mean. So one SD above and below the mean covers about 68% of a symmetric bell curve.

What does two standard deviations cover?

Around 95% of the data falls within two standard deviations of the mean. So two SD above and below the mean account for approximately 95% of normally distributed data.

When is standard deviation used?

Standard deviation is used to measure statistical dispersion, standardize data, construct confidence intervals, detect outliers, define quality specifications, compare data distributions, and establish statistical significance.

Can standard deviation be zero?

No, the standard deviation is always greater than zero for datasets with any variance. A standard deviation of zero would mean all values are identical.

Is a large standard deviation good or bad?

There is no inherently good or bad standard deviation. It depends on context. Wider SD indicates more variability which may be good or bad. SD only measures spread, not accuracy.

What does a small standard deviation mean?

A small standard deviation indicates the data points are clustered closely around the mean. There is little variation in the dataset.

How do you analyze standard deviation?

Analyze SD by considering the units of measurement, data distribution, context of the numbers, established benchmarks, presence of outliers, and statistical significance of differences between groups.


In summary, the standard deviation is a key metric used across statistics, science, finance, and many other domains. It indicates how dispersed the values in a dataset are around the mean. A small SD indicates clustering while a large SD indicates wider spread. Uses of standard deviation include measuring variability, standardizing data, detecting outliers, defining quality tolerances, testing statistical significance, and estimating normal probability intervals.

When interpreting standard deviation, consider the units of measurement, distribution shape, context of the application, established benchmarks, presence of outliers, and differences between groups. Compare standard deviation to related concepts like variance, MAD, range, IQR, and z-scores. Look at SD in combination with other statistics, graphics, and domain insights for robust interpretation.