I'm an absolute beginner in statistics. Please excuse any wrong assumptions or missing information in my question. I have a question that relates to a multinomial distribution (not even 100% sure about this) that I hope somebody can help me with. If I take a sample (lets assume $n=400$) on a categorical variable that has more than two possible outcomes (e.g. blue, black, green, yellow) and plot the frequencies so that I can derive the probabilities. E.g.: black 10% blue 25% green 35% yellow 30%

How could I compute the 95% confidence interval for those probabilities? And how could I determine the sample size required in order to get an accurate result within +-3% for each probability? Please let me know if the answer to the question requires any additional information.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the website, you may want to do a search on maximum likelihood estimation and standard error, this link may be a good start. P.S: Although they are talking about a different distribution (Pareto) in the link, the concepts apply to your case. $\endgroup$
    – Zhubarb
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 14:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Also check this out: sites.stat.psu.edu/~sesa/stat504/Lecture/lec3_4up.pdf $\endgroup$
    – Zhubarb
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ Would you know how to do it if you got only two categories instead of four? $\endgroup$
    – Michael M
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 14:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hi Michael, I think in this case it could work with a binomial distribution and I would use the normal distribution (since it's approximately the same) to calculate the confidence interval. Please correct me if I'm wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Dirk
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 16:06
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Then you can simply do this for each category separately (e.g. black vs. non-black). $\endgroup$
    – Michael M
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 17:04

3 Answers 3


Thank you very much again for your help. Below is the (hopefully correct) solution using the "Normal Approximation Method" of the Binomial Confidence Interval:

enter image description here

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For the sample size in binomial designs, sometimes one uses the 'worst' case p = 0.5 because usually the proportions are not known in advance. Further note that there are slightly better methods that the simple z approximation, e.g. Wilson's method. But your solution looks nice anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Michael M
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Michael, thanks a lot for the additional tips and the confirmation. Really appreciated. $\endgroup$
    – Dirk
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ I think there might be a mistake in the equation in the spreadsheet. In the standard error (s.e.) you need to divide by the overall sample size (n=400), not the number of realizations for each category. $\endgroup$
    – user99110
    Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 17:15

I would like to add Wilson's method mentioned by Michael M in a comment.
From Wikipedia: Binomial proportion confidence interval - Wilson_score_interval.
You can get a 95% confidence interval by using the following:

$\frac{n_s + \frac{z^2}{2}}{n+z^2} \pm \frac{z}{n+z^2}\sqrt{\frac{n_s n_f}{n}+\frac{z^2}{4}}$

The left term is the center value and the right term gives the value you have to add / subtract to get the interval bounds.

$n_s$ is the number of samples in that category, $n_f$ the number of samples not in that category, $n$ the total number of samples and $z$ is 1.96 if you want a 95% confidence interval*

For high counts it gives the same results of the normal approximation, however this should be better for low counts or extreme values.

As an example, I had a category with 0 samples and the normal approximation returned a 0 s.e., and thus an absured confidence interval of 0-0 (as it was certain that it has 0% probability, while actually it had 0 occurence only because of the few samples).

$ $

* The method is actually for a binomial distribution and $n_s$ and $n_f$ are successes and failures on that distribution. However, I think it can be reasonably used for a multinomial, even though it does not account for the fact that estimated probabilities must sum up to 1. The normal approximation doesn't account for that either afaik.


There are several methods to get confidence intervals for multinomial proportions, and many of them are implemented in R's function MultinomCI() from the DescTools package:

> DescTools::MultinomCI(400 * c(0.10, 0.25, 0.35, 0.30), sides = "two.sided", method = "sisonglaz")
      est lwr.ci    upr.ci
[1,] 0.10   0.05 0.1549989
[2,] 0.25   0.20 0.3049989
[3,] 0.35   0.30 0.4049989
[4,] 0.30   0.25 0.3549989

For details, see https://cran.r-project.org/web/packages/DescTools/DescTools.pdf


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.