Methods: When correlations go bad

Thom Baguley cautions against the careless and routine application of standardisation in psychology

The noted statistician C.P. Winsor once established a Society for the Suppression of the Correlation Coefficient. According to John Tukey it had as its ‘guiding principle…that most correlation coefficients should never be calculated’ (Tukey, 1954, p.38). Nor were Tukey and Winsor alone: The idea of regression is usually introduced in connection with the theory of correlation, but it is in reality a more general, and, in some respects, a simpler idea, and the regression co-efficients are of interest and scientific importance in many classes of data where the correlation coefficient, if used at all, is an artificial concept of no real utility.(Fisher, 1925, p.129)

The noted statistician C.P. Winsor once established a Society for the Suppression of the Correlation Coefficient. According to John Tukey it had as its ‘guiding principle…that most correlation coefficients should never be calculated’ (Tukey, 1954, p.38). Nor were Tukey and Winsor alone:
The idea of regression is usually introduced in connection with the theory of correlation, but it is in reality a more general, and, in some respects, a simpler idea, and the regression co-efficients are of interest and scientific importance in many classes of data where the correlation coefficient, if used at all, is an artificial concept of no real utility.
(Fisher, 1925, p.129)

Some might attribute this stance to Fisher’s rivalry with Karl Pearson (of the eponymous product–moment correlation coefficient r). Yet this would be to miss the point.

To appreciate the advantages of regression over correlation the first step is to understand how they are related. The relationship is easiest to explain in terms of simple linear regression (a bivariate regression between two variables). In regression, Y is predicted from X, and
a linear regression finds the straight line that predicts most accurately (by minimising the sums of the squared vertical distances of observations from the line). The output of the regression is an equation of the form:
Y = b0 + b1X1

The intercept of the line is the constant b0 and represents the value of Y when X = 0 (where the regression line crosses the Y axis when plotted). The slope of the line is b1 and represents the expected increase in Y when X increases by 1. What if we wanted to predict people’s earnings (measured in US dollars) from their height (measured in inches)? For a US sample (adapted from Gelman & Hill, 2007, who also consider more plausible linear models) a simple linear regression gives the line:

earnings = –60515 + 1256 x height

Each extra inch in height is associated with an increase in average earnings of $1256. This equation can readily be used to predict the earnings of based on a person’s height (e.g. $27,405 for a person who is 70 inches tall).

There are many different ways to view a correlation coefficient (e.g. see Rodgers & Nicewander, 1988), but the similarities and differences with regression are clear if you consider that r is itself a regression slope. However, r is the slope in the bivariate regression of the ‘standardised’ scores of Y on X (i.e. the regression of zY on zX). To standardise a variable (e.g. X) first subtract its original mean from every value, then divide this value by the original standard deviation (SD). This preserves the distribution of X and Y but rescales them so that both have a mean of 0 and an SD of 1. The resulting regression therefore has an intercept of zero. Its slope is r (and must fall somewhere from –1 to +1).
For the earnings data the regression of zY on zX gives the best-fitting line as:

earnings = .24 x height

The slope .24 is identical to that value I’d get from calculating r. The difference lies in the interpretation of the r and b0. The latter uses the original units of analysis and, if the units are meaningful, is widely regarded as easier to interpret and understand (e.g. Wilkinson & APA Task Force on Statistical Inference, 1999). It is immediately obvious – even to someone with no statistical training – that a $1256 increase in earnings per inch of height is potentially important. On the other hand, a correlation of .24 between height and earnings is trickier to interpret. Many students are taught to interpret such a correlation as a ‘small’ to ‘moderate’ effect and regard it as relatively uninteresting (because height explains only .242 ˜ .058 or 5.8 percent of the variance). A better interpretation is that a 1 SD increase in height is associated with a .24 SD increase in earnings. Some psychologists will realise this represents a surprisingly big effect, but it is hard to put in context unless you really know the SD of each variable.

A common argument in favour of standardised coefficients such as r is they make interpreting or comparing variables on arbitrary scales easier. This position is questionable. I have recently argued the opposite: we will generally be better off using simple, unstandardised effect size metrics (Baguley, 2009). This applies to correlation-based measures such as r or R2 or standardised mean differences such as Cohen’s d. Even with arbitrary scales, psychologists will typically be better off using the original units. For a start, even ad hoc scales (e.g. Likert-style ratings) convey some useful information about what is going on. Knowing that two groups differ on average by two points
on a five-point scale of agreement tells you that the difference is enough to shift someone from a neutral to an extreme response. Contrast this with a standardised effect size metric such as Cohen’s d. If d = 0.5 this would represent a difference of 0.5 times the SD of the ratings. If the SD is small (because ratings are generally very consistent) this could represent a small fraction of a scale point. If the SD is large it might represent a shift of several points. Standardised effects are not readily interpretable unless you also know (and appreciate) how large the relevant SDs are. Even for, say, IQ, where this information is widely known, it is not clear that d = .20 is any easier to interpret than a difference of three IQ points.

If that were the only problem with standardisation I’d be fairly relaxed about their ubiquity in psychology. There is a deeper issue. Standardised effect sizes are calculated using the sample SD, but researchers nearly always (implicitly or explicitly) assume that they can be interpreted in terms of the population SD. This is one of the main objections to correlation coefficients. Anything that influences a sample SD but not the population SD has the potential to distort standardised effect size as measure of the population effect. As it happens, there  is quite a long list of factors (including sampling error) that do exactly that. Worse still, many of these factors systematically distort the sample SD relative to the population SD. In Baguley (2009) I discuss these factors under three main headings: reliability, range restriction and study design.

Firstly, most outcomes that psychologists are interested in are unreliable. For example, Schmidt and Hunter (1999) suggest that measurement error in psychological research is frequently of the order of 50 per cent of the total variance. In the simplest case, measurement error in an outcome measure inflates the sample SD, and so reduces the estimated value of d or r.

Range restriction occurs whenever the range of values in a sample differs from those in the population of interest. Consider the selection of the X variable in regression. If the range of X in the sample is restricted relative to the population, this reduces the SD of X. If X and Y are correlated (provided the correlation is not perfect) the SD of Y will also decrease, but to a lesser degree. This differential impact on the SD of X and Y in turn depresses r in the restricted sample. Range restriction also works in reverse; sampling the extremes of a population will inflate r in a sample (Preacher et al., 2005). The effects of range restriction can be quite extreme. The figure above shows the effect of selecting the middle 100 X values on the X–Y correlation. (Here, X and Y are sampled from normally distributed variables with a population correlation of .80). In the full sample of 500 simulated participants the correlation is .82, while the correlation in the restricted sample is only .19. (If the simulation were repeated these numbers would change but the general pattern would be similar.)

In contrast, for simple situations such as these neither range restriction
nor reliability will bias simple effect size metrics such as the unstandardised regression slope b1. (In more complicated situations, e.g. involving unreliability in X as well as Y or correlated predictors, even unstandardised effect size estimates can be distorted: see Hunter & Schmidt, 2004; Ree & Caretta, 2006.) Although increased sampling error or reduced sample size makes estimation more ‘noisy’, a statistic such as b1 is not directly influenced by the SD of X or Y.

Aspects of the design of the study can also make it very difficult to compare standardised effects between otherwise very similar studies. These factors include whether independent or repeated measures are used, the choice of stimuli and the characteristics of the samples (Baguley, 2009). In some cases it is possible to work round these problems by computing a standardised effect size statistic in a particular way or by employing corrections for reliability and range restriction. Hunter and Schmidt (2004) consider many of these corrections in the context of meta-analysis. But in a single study with low n the information needed to make these corrections may be unavailable or of insufficient quality, or the corrections themselves may be too difficult to implement. Furthermore, these corrections or fixes will often be unnecessary in uncomplicated studies (particularly experiments).

There is sometimes a case to be made for standardising variables – perhaps as an initial default in an overall modelling strategy (Gelman, 2008) or in psychometrics where correlation coefficients are convenient ways to measure reliability and validity (Baguley, 2009). However, the widely held belief that standardisation necessarily places variables or effects on a common scale is false. Careless and routine application of standardisation in psychology (without any awareness of the potential pitfalls) is dangerous. In relation to the Society for the Suppression of the Correlation Coefficient, Brillinger may be correct to conclude:

It is probably more needed now than it was back in the 1940s. Perhaps someone will start a website.(Brillinger, 2001, p.216)

 Thom Baguley is Professor of Experimental Psychology at Nottingham Trent University
[email protected]

references
Baguley, T. (2009). Standardized or simple effect size: What should be reported? British Journal of Psychology. 100, 603–617.
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