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Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition

  • Author(s): Vul, Edward
  • Harris, Christine
  • Winkielman, Piotr
  • Pashler, Harold
  • et al.
Abstract

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition have drawn much attention in recent years, with high-profile studies frequently reporting extremely high (e.g., >.8) correlations between behavioral and self-report measures of personality or emotion and measures of brain activation. We show that these correlations often exceed what is statistically possible assuming the (evidently rather limited) reliability of both fMRI and personality/emotion measures. The implausibly high correlations are all the more puzzling because method sections rarely contain sufficient detail to ascertain how these correlations were obtained. We surveyed authors of 54 articles that reported findings of this kind to determine a few details on how these correlations were computed. More than half acknowledged using a strategy that computes separate correlations for individual voxels, and reports means of just the subset of voxels exceeding chosen thresholds. We show how this non-independent analysis grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams. This analysis technique was used to obtain the vast majority of the implausibly high correlations in our survey sample. In addition, we argue that other analysis problems likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases. We outline how the data from these studies could be reanalyzed with unbiased methods to provide the field with accurate estimates of the correlations in question. We urge authors to perform such reanalyses and to correct the scientific record.

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