Chapter 8: Complex Research Designs

Complex Correlational Designs

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain some reasons that researchers use complex correlational designs.
  2. Create and interpret a correlation matrix.
  3. Describe how researchers can use correlational research to explore causal relationships among variables—including the limits of this approach.

As we have already seen, researchers conduct correlational studies rather than experiments when they are interested in noncausal relationships or when they are interested in causal relationships where the independent variable cannot be manipulated for practical or ethical reasons. In this section, we look at some approaches to complex correlational research that involve measuring several variables and assessing the relationships among them.

Correlational Studies With Factorial Designs

We have already seen that factorial experiments can include manipulated independent variables or a combination of manipulated and nonmanipulated independent variables. But factorial designs can also include only nonmanipulated independent variables, in which case they are no longer experiments but correlational studies. Consider a hypothetical study in which a researcher measures both the moods and the self-esteem of several participants—categorizing them as having either a positive or negative mood and as being either high or low in self-esteem—along with their willingness to have unprotected sexual intercourse. This can be conceptualized as a 2 × 2 factorial design with mood (positive vs. negative) and self-esteem (high vs. low) as between-subjects factors. Willingness to have unprotected sex is the dependent variable. This design can be represented in a factorial design table and the results in a bar graph of the sort we have already seen. The researcher would consider the main effect of sex, the main effect of self-esteem, and the interaction between these two independent variables.

Again, because neither independent variable in this example was manipulated, it is a correlational study rather than an experiment. (The similar study by MacDonald and Martineau [2002][1] was an experiment because they manipulated their participants’ moods.) This is important because, as always, one must be cautious about inferring causality from correlational studies because of the directionality and third-variable problems. For example, a main effect of participants’ moods on their willingness to have unprotected sex might be caused by any other variable that happens to be correlated with their moods.

Assessing Relationships Among Multiple Variables

Most complex correlational research, however, does not fit neatly into a factorial design. Instead, it involves measuring several variables—often both categorical and quantitative—and then assessing the statistical relationships among them. For example, researchers Nathan Radcliffe and William Klein studied a sample of middle-aged adults to see how their level of optimism (measured by using a short questionnaire called the Life Orientation Test) relates to several other variables related to having a heart attack (Radcliffe & Klein, 2002)[2]. These included their health, their knowledge of heart attack risk factors, and their beliefs about their own risk of having a heart attack. They found that more optimistic participants were healthier (e.g., they exercised more and had lower blood pressure), knew about heart attack risk factors, and correctly believed their own risk to be lower than that of their peers.

This approach is often used to assess the validity of new psychological measures. For example, when John Cacioppo and Richard Petty created their Need for Cognition Scale—a measure of the extent to which people like to think and value thinking—they used it to measure the need for cognition for a large sample of college students, along with three other variables: intelligence, socially desirable responding (the tendency to give what one thinks is the “appropriate” response), and dogmatism (Caccioppo & Petty, 1982)[3]. The results of this study are summarized in Table 8.1, which is a correlation matrix showing the correlation (Pearson’s r) between every possible pair of variables in the study. For example, the correlation between the need for cognition and intelligence was +.39, the correlation between intelligence and socially desirable responding was +.02, and so on. (Only half the matrix is filled in because the other half would contain exactly the same information. Also, because the correlation between a variable and itself is always +1.00, these values are replaced with dashes throughout the matrix.) In this case, the overall pattern of correlations was consistent with the researchers’ ideas about how scores on the need for cognition should be related to these other constructs.

Table 8.1 Correlation Matrix Showing Correlations Among the Need for Cognition and Three Other Variables Based on Research by Cacioppo and Petty (1982)
Need for cognition Intelligence Social desireability Dogmatism
Need for cognition
Intelligence +.39
Social desirability +.08 +.02
Dogmatism −.27 −.23 +.03

When researchers study relationships among a large number of conceptually similar variables, they often use a complex statistical technique called factor analysis. In essence, factor analysis organizes the variables into a smaller number of clusters, such that they are strongly correlated within each cluster but weakly correlated between clusters. Each cluster is then interpreted as multiple measures of the same underlying construct. These underlying constructs are also called “factors.” For example, when people perform a wide variety of mental tasks, factor analysis typically organizes them into two main factors—one that researchers interpret as mathematical intelligence (arithmetic, quantitative estimation, spatial reasoning, and so on) and another that they interpret as verbal intelligence (grammar, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and so on). The Big Five personality factors have been identified through factor analyses of people’s scores on a large number of more specific traits. For example, measures of warmth, gregariousness, activity level, and positive emotions tend to be highly correlated with each other and are interpreted as representing the construct of extroversion. As a final example, researchers Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling asked more than 1,700 university students to rate how much they liked 14 different popular genres of music (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2008)[4]. They then submitted these 14 variables to a factor analysis, which identified four distinct factors. The researchers called them Reflective and Complex (blues, jazz, classical, and folk), Intense and Rebellious (rock, alternative, and heavy metal), Upbeat and Conventional (country, soundtrack, religious, pop), and Energetic and Rhythmic (rap/hip-hop, soul/funk, and electronica).

Two additional points about factor analysis are worth making here. One is that factors are not categories. Factor analysis does not tell us that people are either extraverted or conscientious or that they like either “reflective and complex” music or “intense and rebellious” music. Instead, factors are constructs that operate independently of each other. So people who are high in extroversion might be high or low in conscientiousness, and people who like reflective and complex music might or might not also like intense and rebellious music. The second point is that factor analysis reveals only the underlying structure of the variables. It is up to researchers to interpret and label the factors and to explain the origin of that particular factor structure. For example, one reason that extraversion and the other Big Five operate as separate factors is that they appear to be controlled by different genes (Plomin, DeFries, McClean, & McGuffin, 2008)[5].

Exploring Causal Relationships

Another important use of complex correlational research is to explore possible causal relationships among variables. This might seem surprising given that “correlation does not imply causation.” It is true that correlational research cannot unambiguously establish that one variable causes another. Complex correlational research, however, can often be used to rule out other plausible interpretations.

The primary way of doing this is through the statistical control of potential third variables. Instead of controlling these variables by random assignment or by holding them constant as in an experiment, the researcher measures them and includes them in the statistical analysis. Consider some research by Paul Piff and his colleagues, who hypothesized that being lower in socioeconomic status (SES) causes people to be more generous (Piff, Kraus, Côté, Hayden Cheng, & Keltner, 2011)[6]. They measured their participants’ SES and had them play the “dictator game.” They told participants that each would be paired with another participant in a different room. (In reality, there was no other participant.) Then they gave each participant 10 points (which could later be converted to money) to split with the “partner” in whatever way he or she decided. Because the participants were the “dictators,” they could even keep all 10 points for themselves if they wanted to.

As these researchers expected, participants who were lower in SES tended to give away more of their points than participants who were higher in SES. This is consistent with the idea that being lower in SES causes people to be more generous. But there are also plausible third variables that could explain this relationship. It could be, for example, that people who are lower in SES tend to be more religious and that it is their greater religiosity that causes them to be more generous. Or it could be that people who are lower in SES tend to come from certain ethnic groups that emphasize generosity more than other ethnic groups. The researchers dealt with these potential third variables, however, by measuring them and including them in their statistical analyses. They found that neither religiosity nor ethnicity was correlated with generosity and were therefore able to rule them out as third variables. This does not prove that SES causes greater generosity because there could still be other third variables that the researchers did not measure. But by ruling out some of the most plausible third variables, the researchers made a stronger case for SES as the cause of the greater generosity.

Many studies of this type use a statistical technique called multiple regression. This involves measuring several independent variables (X1, X2, X3,…Xi), all of which are possible causes of a single dependent variable (Y). The result of a multiple regression analysis is an equation that expresses the dependent variable as an additive combination of the independent variables. This regression equation has the following general form:

b1X1+ b2X2+ b3X3+ … + biX= Y

The quantities b1, b2, and so on are regression weights that indicate how large a contribution an independent variable makes, on average, to the dependent variable. Specifically, they indicate how much the dependent variable changes for each one-unit change in the independent variable.

The advantage of multiple regression is that it can show whether an independent variable makes a contribution to a dependent variable over and above the contributions made by other independent variables. As a hypothetical example, imagine that a researcher wants to know how the independent variables of income and health relate to the dependent variable of happiness. This is tricky because income and health are themselves related to each other. Thus if people with greater incomes tend to be happier, then perhaps this is only because they tend to be healthier. Likewise, if people who are healthier tend to be happier, perhaps this is only because they tend to make more money. But a multiple regression analysis including both income and happiness as independent variables would show whether each one makes a contribution to happiness when the other is taken into account. (Research like this, by the way, has shown both income and health make extremely small contributions to happiness except in the case of severe poverty or illness; Diener, 2000.[7])

The examples discussed in this section only scratch the surface of how researchers use complex correlational research to explore possible causal relationships among variables. It is important to keep in mind, however, that purely correlational approaches cannot unambiguously establish that one variable causes another. The best they can do is show patterns of relationships that are consistent with some causal interpretations and inconsistent with others.

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers often use complex correlational research to explore relationships among several variables in the same study.
  • Complex correlational research can be used to explore possible causal relationships among variables using techniques such as multiple regression. Such designs can show patterns of relationships that are consistent with some causal interpretations and inconsistent with others, but they cannot unambiguously establish that one variable causes another.


  1. Practice: Construct a correlation matrix for a hypothetical study including the variables of depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and happiness. Include the Pearson’s r values that you would expect.
  2. Discussion: Imagine a correlational study that looks at intelligence, the need for cognition, and high school students’ performance in a critical-thinking course. A multiple regression analysis shows that intelligence is not related to performance in the class but that the need for cognition is. Explain what this study has shown in terms of what causes good performance in the critical-thinking course.

  1. MacDonald, T. K., & Martineau, A. M. (2002). Self-esteem, mood, and intentions to use condoms: When does low self-esteem lead to risky health behaviours? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 299–306.
  2. Radcliffe, N. M., & Klein, W. M. P. (2002). Dispositional, unrealistic, and comparative optimism: Differential relations with knowledge and processing of risk information and beliefs about personal risk. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 836–846.
  3. Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 116–131.
  4. Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2008). The do re mi’s of everyday life: The structure and personality correlates of music preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1236–1256.
  5. Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., McClearn, G. E., & McGuffin, P. (2008). Behavioural genetics (5th ed.). New York, NY: Worth.
  6. Piff, P. K., Kraus, M. W., Côté, S., Hayden Cheng, B., & Keltner, D. (2011). Having less, giving more: The influence of social class on prosocial behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 771–784.
  7. Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness, and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34–43.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Research Methods in Psychology - 2nd Canadian Edition Copyright © 2015 by Paul C. Price, Rajiv Jhangiani, & I-Chant A. Chiang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book