The need to control for regression to the mean in social psychology studies

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It is common in repeated measurements for extreme values at the first measurement to approach the mean at the subsequent measurement, a phenomenon called regression to the mean (RTM). If RTM is not fully controlled, it will lead to erroneous conclusions. The wide use of repeated measurements in social psychology creates a risk that an RTM effect will influence results. However, insufficient attention is paid to RTM in most social psychological research. Notable cases include studies on the phenomena of social conformity and unrealistic optimism (Klucharev et al., 2009, 2011; Sharot et al., 2011, 2012b; Campbell-Meiklejohn et al., 2012; Kim et al., 2012; Garrett and Sharot, 2014). In Study 1, 13 university students rated and re-rated the facial attractiveness of a series of female faces as a test of the social conformity effect (Klucharev et al., 2009). In Study 2, 15 university students estimated and re-estimated their risk of experiencing a series of adverse life events as a test of the unrealistic optimism effect (Sharot et al., 2011). Although these studies used methodologies similar to those used in earlier research, the social conformity and unrealistic optimism effects were no longer evident after controlling for RTM. Based on these findings we suggest several ways to control for the RTM effect in social psychology studies, such as adding the initial rating as a covariate in regression analysis, selecting a subset of stimuli for which the participant' initial ratings were matched across experimental conditions, and using a control group.




Yu, R., & Chen, L. (2014). The need to control for regression to the mean in social psychology studies. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(OCT).

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