We use the mean of a data set as a measure of center of its distribution, but two data sets with the same mean could have very different distributions.
This dot plot shows the weights, in grams, of 22 cookies.
The mean weight is 21 grams. All the weights are within 3 grams of the mean, and most of them are even closer. These cookies are all fairly close in weight.
This dot plot shows the weights, in grams, of a different set of 30 cookies.
The mean weight for this set of cookies is also 21 grams, but some cookies are half that weight and others are oneandahalf times that weight. There is a lot more variability in the weight.
There is a number we can use to describe how far away, or how spread out, data points generally are from the mean. This measure of spread is called the mean absolute deviation (MAD).
Here the MAD tells us how far cookie weights typically are from 21 grams. To find the MAD, we find the distance between each data value and the mean, and then calculate the mean of those distances.
For instance, the point that represents 18 grams is 3 units away from the mean of 21 grams. We can find the distance between each point and the mean of 21 grams and organize the distances into a table, as shown.
weight in grams 
18 
19 
19 
19 
20 
20 
20 
20 
21 
21 
21 
21 
21 
22 
22 
22 
22 
22 
22 
23 
23 
24 
distance from mean 
3 
2 
2 
2 
1 
1 
1 
1 
0 
0 
0 
0 
0 
1 
1 
1 
1 
1 
1 
2 
2 
3 
The values in the first row of the table are the cookie weights for the first set of cookies. Their mean, 21 grams, is the mean of the cookie weights.
The values in the second row of the table are the distances between the values in the first row and 21. The mean of these distances is the MAD of the cookie weights.
What can we learn from the averages of these distances once they are calculated?
 In the first set of cookies, the distances are all between 0 and 3. The MAD is 1.2 grams, which tells us that the cookie weights are typically within 1.2 grams of 21 grams. We could say that a typical cookie weighs between 19.8 and 22.2 grams.

In the second set of cookies, the distances are all between 0 and 13. The MAD is 5.6 grams, which tells us that the cookie weights are typically within 5.6 grams of 21 grams. We could say a typical cookie weighs between 15.4 and 26.6 grams.
The MAD is also called a measure of the variability of the distribution. In these examples, it is easy to see that a higher MAD suggests a distribution that is more spread out, showing more variability.