Simulations in R Part 3: Group comparisons via simulation (simulating t-tests)

To review where we are at so far:

  • Part 1 discussed the basic functions for simulating and sampling data in R.
  • Part 2 walked us through how to perform bootstrap resampling and then simulate bivariate and multivariate distributions.

In Part 3, we are ready to put this info to use and start to simulate data and construct models. To start things off, this tutorial will focus on simulating data for comparison of group means — a t-test.

As always, all code is freely available in the Github repository.

Simulating Two Groups for Comparison

We begin by simulating two groups using the rnorm() function to make a random draw from a normal distribution. Group 1 will have a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 10 while Group 2 will have a mean of 60 with a standard deviation of 6.25. Both groups have a sample size of 10 (so this is a small study!).

In addition to simulating the data, we will store summary statistics for each group so that we can use them later.

grp1 <- rnorm(n = 10,
              mean = 50,
              sd = 10)

grp2 <- rnorm(n = 10,
              mean = 60,
              sd = 6.25)

## get the summary statistics for both groups
# sample size
n_grp1 <- length(grp1)
n_grp2 <- length(grp2)

# means
mu_grp1 <- mean(grp1)
mu_grp2 <- mean(grp2)

# variances
var_grp1 <- var(grp1)
var_grp2 <- var(grp2)

# standard deviation
sd_grp1 <- sd(grp1)
sd_grp2 <- sd(grp2)

Next, we calculate the t-statistic, which is the difference between the two groups means divided by the pooled standard deviation of the two groups.

## pooled SD
sd_pool <- sqrt(((n_grp1 - 1) * var_grp1 + (n_grp2 - 1) * var_grp2) / (n_grp1 + n_grp2 - 2))

## Compute t-statistic
t_stat <- (mu_grp1 - mu_grp2) / (sd_pool * sqrt(1/n_grp1 + 1/n_grp2))

We can use this t-statistic to determine if the difference is significant or not at a desired alpha level, say p < 0.05, by using a t-distribution (the qt() function, which we were introduced to in Part 1 of this series). We then check our work against R’s build in t.test() function.

alpha <- 0.05
df <- n_grp1 + n_grp2 - 2 if(abs(t_stat) > qt(1 - alpha / 2, df, lower.tail = TRUE)){
  "significant difference"} else {"not a significant difference"} 

# Get p-value
p_value <- 2*pt(abs(t_stat), df, lower=FALSE)

# check work
t.test(grp1, grp2)

The group difference is barely significant at the p < 0.05 level. We calculated the t-statistic by hand and got the exact same value as that which was produced by the t.test() function.

To make this approach more streamlined, let’s create our own t-test function so that all we need to do in the future is pass it a vector of values representing each group’s data and get returned the t-statistic.


## t-test function
t_stat_func <- function(x, y){
  n_grp1 <- length(x)
  n_grp2 <- length(y)
  sd_pool <- sqrt(((n_grp1 - 1) * sd(x)^2 + (n_grp2 - 1) * sd(y)^2) / (n_grp1 + n_grp2 - 2))
  t_stat <- (mean(x) - mean(y)) / (sd_pool * sqrt(1/n_grp1 + 1/n_grp2))

## try out the function
t_stat_func(x = grp1, y = grp2)

We only have 10 observations in each of our groups. With such a small sample size, it may be challenging to really know if the difference we observed is real or just some sort of chance/luck occurrence (we will explore sample size issues via simulation in a later blog post). What we can do is use the function we just created and build simulated distributions using the data generating process (mean and SD) of each group to run a Monte Carlo simulations and explore how often we might reject or accept the null hypothesis at an alpha level of p < 0.05.

# Let's set alpha to 0.05
alpha <- 0.05

# We will run 10,000 simulations
N_sims <- 1e4

# create an empty vector for storing t-statistics and p-valies
t_stat <- rep(NA, N_sims)
p_values <- rep(NA, N_sims)

for(i in 1:N_sims){
  # simulate population 1
  grp1_sim <- rnorm(n = n_grp1, mean = mu_grp1, sd = sd_grp1)
  # simulate group 2
  grp2_sim <- rnorm(n = n_grp2, mean = mu_grp2, sd = sd_grp2)
  # compute the t-statistic with our function
  t_stat[i] <- t_stat_func(grp1_sim, grp2_sim)

  # get degrees of freedom for calculating the p-value
  df <- n_grp1 + n_grp2 - 2
  # obtain the p-value
  p_value[i] <- 2*pt(abs(t_stat[i]), df, lower=FALSE)

par(mfrow = c(1, 2))
     main = "T-Statistic Distribution")
abline(v = mean(abs(t_stat)),
       col = "red",
       lwd = 3,
       lty = 2)
     main = "p-value Distribution")
abline(v = 0.05,
       col = "red",
       lwd = 3,
       lty = 2)

# What percentage of times did we reject the null?
mean(p_value < 0.05)

You will get slightly different results, since I didn’t set a seed, but you will find that we end up rejecting the null about 52-53% of the time, meaning we probably wouldn’t want to be too confident about our “statistically significant” finding.

We could have saved a lot of lines of code and instead used the replicate() function and run 10,000 simulations of the t-test between the two groups (additionally, replicate() will run faster than the for() loop).


t_test <- function(){
  grp1 <- rnorm(n = n_grp1, mean = mu_grp1, sd = sd_grp1)
  grp2 <- rnorm(n = n_grp2, mean = mu_grp2, sd = sd_grp2)
  t_stat_func(grp1, grp2)

# Instead of a for loop, we will use the replicate() function to run this 10,000 times
t_stat_vector <- replicate(n = 10000,

     main = "T-Test Simulation using replicate()",
     xlab = "T-Statistic")

Simulating Data from Studies

Why just create fake data and play around when we can use a similar approach to simulating data to help us further explore data contained in studies we read?! Most studies do not provide full data sets but do provide necessary summary statistics (e.g., sample size, mean, standard deviation, standard errors, confidence intervals, etc.), allowing us to use the data generating processes to simulate the study.

I was reading a 2010 paper from Saenz et al., Knee isokinetic test-retest: A multicenter knee isokinetic test-retest study of a fatigue protocol (Eur J Phys Rehabil Med), where they authors were conducing a series of test-retest protocols using a biodex. The tables in the paper lay out the information required to simulate the study. For example, in Table 1, the authors’ provide the mean, median, and standard deviation for all of the extension tests that were performed. I’ll use the data provided for the test, WRepMax.

## Saenz (2010) - Knee isokinetic test-retest - simulation
## Table 1: Extension
# We will simulate the test scores provided for WrepMax

# number of subjects
N <- 90

## Get the mean and SD for the test and retest from Table 1 for WrepMax
test1_mu <- 99.3
test1_sd <- 18.34
test2_mu <- 104.44
test2_sd <- 24.90

Next, we calculate the mean difference between test 1 and test 2 and grab the standard deviation for the test, provided in Table 3 of the paper.

## Get the difference and standard deviation of the difference between test 1 and 2 from Table 3 (row 1)
diff <- test1_mu - test2_mu
sd_diff <- 17.37

First, we simulate Test 1 using the above parameters (sample size, mean, and standard deviation).

## Simulate the first test using the summary statistics from Table 1
w_rep_max_1 <- rnorm(n = N, mean = test1_mu, sd = test1_sd)

Next, we simulate Test 2. However, we have to remember consider that, because we are trying to simulate the performance of the 90 participant in the study, Test 2 has a relationship to the performance of Test 1 because the authors’ are analyzing the difference in performance between the two tests. Therefore, to create Test 2 we will use our simulation of Test 1 for each participant and include some random error, which is specific to the mean and standard deviation of the difference between Test 1 and Test 2 reported in the study.

## Simulate test 2 by taking test 1 and applying the observed difference between tests (Table 3) 
w_rep_max_2 <- w_rep_max_1 + rnorm(n = N, mean = abs(diff), sd = sd_diff)

Now that we have Test 1 and Test 2 simulated for each participant, we can calculate the summary statistics and see how well they compare to the observed data reported in the study.

## Get the mean and SD of the simulated test1 and test 2
test1_mu_sim <- mean(w_rep_max_1) 
test1_sd_sim <- sd(w_rep_max_1)

test2_mu_sim <- mean(w_rep_max_2)
test2_sd_sim <- sd(w_rep_max_2)



## Get the mean and SD of the difference between simulations
diff_mu_sim <- mean(w_rep_max_1 - w_rep_max_2)
diff_sd_sim <- sd(w_rep_max_1 - w_rep_max_2)


The results are nearly identical to those presented in the study (see the link, as the study is free). Now that we have a simulated data set of all of the participants we can do other things with the data, such as plot it, conduct additional reliability metrics that weren’t performed in the study, recreate the analysis in the study to get a better understanding of the analysis that was performed, or perhaps try and model the data in different ways to explore its properties and generate new ideas for future research.

For example, let’s run a paired t-test on the simulated data, as the author’s did and look at the results in comparison to simulating this study 1000 times. We re-write our t_test() function from above to re-simulate the data in the study and then conduct a paired t-test, storing the t-statistic so that we can investigate how often we would reject the null hypothesis.

## Run a paired t-test
t.test(w_rep_max_1, w_rep_max_2, paired = TRUE)

## create a function for the paired t-test and extract the t-statistic
t_test_retest <- function(){
  w_rep_max_1 <- rnorm(n = N, mean = test1_mu, sd = test1_sd)
  w_rep_max_2 <- w_rep_max_1 + rnorm(n = N, mean = abs(diff), sd = sd_diff)
  t.test(w_rep_max_1, w_rep_max_2, paired = TRUE)$statistic

# Instead of a for loop, we will use the replicate() function to run this 10,000 times
t_stat_test_retest <- replicate(n = 10000,


# turn the t-statistics into p-values
p <- 2*pt(abs(t_stat_test_retest), df = 90 - 2, lower=FALSE)

# histogram of p-values
     main = "p-values of all simulated data\nreject the null ~79% of the time")

# what percentage of times did we reject the null at the p < 0.05 level?
mean(p < 0.05)

We reject the result approximately 79% of the time at the alpha level of p < 0.05.

Wrapping Up

This tutorial worked through using simulation to understand the difference in group means, as we would commonly do with a t-test. Next, we progress on to simulation linear regression models.

As always, all code is freely available in the Github repository.