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As a method to investigate the scope of unconscious mental processes, researchers frequently obtain concurrent measures of task performance and stimulus awareness across participants. Even though both measures might be significantly greater than zero, the correlation between them might not, encouraging the inference that an unconscious process drives task performance. We highlight the pitfalls of this null-correlation approach and provide a mini-tutorial on ways to avoid them. As reference, we use a recent study by Salvador et al. (2018) reporting a non-significant correlation between the extent to which memory was suppressed by a Think/No-Think cue and an index of cue awareness. In the Null Hypothesis Significance Testing (NHST) framework, it is inappropriate to interpret failure to reject the null hypothesis (i.e., correlation = 0) as evidence for the null. Furthermore, psychological measures are often unreliable, which can dramatically attenuate the size of observed correlations. A Bayesian approach can circumvent both problems and compare the extent to which the data provide evidence for the null versus the alternative hypothesis (i.e., correlation > 0), while considering the usually low reliabilities of the variables. Applied to Salvador et al.'s data, this approach indicates no to moderate support for the claimed unconscious nature of participants' memory-suppression performance-depending on the model of the alternative hypothesis. Hence, more reliable data are needed. When analyzing correlational data, we recommend researchers to employ the Bayesian methods developed here (and made freely available as R scripts), rather than standard NHST methods, to take account of unreliability. Copyright © 2021 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Citation

Simone Malejka, Miguel A Vadillo, Zoltán Dienes, David R Shanks. Correlation analysis to investigate unconscious mental processes: A critical appraisal and mini-tutorial. Cognition. 2021 May 08;212:104667


PMID: 33975175

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