# Bayesian First Aid: Pearson Correlation Test

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Correlation does not imply causation, sure but, as Edward Tufte writes, “it sure is a hint.” The Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient is perhaps one of the most common ways of looking for such hints and this post describes the Bayesian First Aid alternative to the classical Pearson correlation test. Except for being based on Bayesian estimation (a good thing in my book) this alternative is more robust to outliers and comes with a pretty nice default plot. 🙂

*Bayesian First Aid is an attempt at implementing reasonable Bayesian alternatives to the classical hypothesis tests in R. For the rationale behind Bayesian First Aid see the original announcement. The development of Bayesian First Aid can be followed on GitHub. Bayesian First Aid is a work in progress and I’m grateful for any suggestion on how to improve it!*

## The Model

The classical test of Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient between two paired variables $x_i$ and $y_i$ assumes bivariate normality. It assumes that the relation is linear and that both $x_i$ and $y_i$ are normally distributed. I’ve already written about *a* Bayesian alternative to the correlation test here and about how that model can be made more robust here. The Bayesian First Aid alternative is basically the robustified version with slightly different priors.

Instead of a bivariate normal distribution we’ll assume a bivariate t distribution. This is the same trick as in the Bayesian First Aid alternative to the t-test, compared to the normal distribution the wider tails of the t will downweight the influence of stray data points. The model has six parameters: the means of the two marginal distributions ($\mu_x,\mu_y$), the SDs ($\sigma_x,\sigma_y$), the degree-of-freedoms parameter that influences the heaviness of the tails ($\nu$), and finally the correlation ($\rho$). The SDs and $\rho$ are then used to define the covariance matrix of the t distribution as:

$$%

The priors on $\mu_x,\mu_y, \sigma_x,\sigma_y$ and $\nu$ are also the same as in the alternative to the two sample t-test, that is, by peaking at the data we set the hyperparameters $M_\mu, S_\mu, L_\sigma$ and $H_\sigma$ resulting in a, for all practical purposes, flat prior. When modeling correlations it is common to directly put a prior distribution on the covariance matrix (the Inverse-Wishart distribution for example). Here we instead do as described by Barnard, McCulloch & Meng (2000) and put separate priors on $\sigma_x,\sigma_y$ and $\rho$, where $\rho$ is given a uniform prior. The advantage with separate priors is that it gives you greater flexibility and makes it easy to add prior information into the mix.

So, here is the final model for the Bayesian First Aid alternative to the correlation test:

## The `bayes.cor.test`

Function

The `bayes.cor.test`

function can be called exactly as the `cor.test`

function in R. If you just ran `cor.test(x, y)`

, prepending `bayes.`

(like `bayes.cor.test(x, y)`

) runs the Bayesian First Aid alternative and prints out a summary of the model result. By saving the output, for example, like `fit <- bayes.cor.test(x, y)`

you can inspect it further using `plot(fit)`

, `summary(fit)`

and `diagnostics(fit)`

.

To showcase `bayes.cor.test`

I will use data from the article *2D:4D ratios predict hand grip strength (but not hand grip endurance) in men (but not in women)* by Hone & McCullough (2012). The ratio here referred to is that between one’s index finger (2D) and ring finger (4D) which is nicely visualized in the Wikipedia entry for digit ratio:

So why is the 2D:4D ratio an interesting measure? It is believed that the 2D:4D ratio is affected by the prenatal exposure to androgens (hormones that control the development of male characteristics) with a *lower* 2D:4D ratio being indicative of *higher* androgen exposure. Stated in a sloppy way, the working hypothesis is that the 2D:4D ratio is a proxy variable for prenatal androgen exposure and could therefore be related to a host of other traits related to “manliness” such as aggression, prostate cancer risk, sperm count, etc. (see Wikipedia for a longer list). Hone & McCullough was interested in the relation between the 2D:4D ratio and a typical “manly” attribute, muscle strength. They therefore measured the grip strength (in kg) and the 2D:4D ratio in 222 psychology students (100 male, 122 female) and found that:

2D:4D ratios significantly predicted [grip strength] in men, but not in women. […] We conclude furthermore that the association of prenatal exposure to testosterone (as indexed by 2D:4D ratios) and strength pertains only to men, and not to women.”

Two points regarding their analysis, before moving on:

- They support the conclusion above by comparing the regression p-values between the male group (
*p*< 0.001) and the female group (*p*= 0.09) and notice that while the regression coefficient is less than 0.05 for the male group it is more than 0.05 for female group. It is not clear to me how*p*= 0.09 is strong evidence that prenatal exposure to testosterone does not influence strength in women*at all*. - Hone & McCullough tests the null hypothesis that there is no correlation
*whatsoever*between 2D:4D ratio and strength. This question could be answered without any data, of course there is*some*correlation between 2D:4D ratio and strength (no matter how tiny). In complex systems, such as humans, it would be extremely unlikely that any given trait (such as hair color, shoe size, movie taste, running speed, no of tweets, etc.) does not correlate*at all*with any other trait. More interesting is*to what degree*2D:4D ratio and strength correlates (which Hone & McCullough also estimated but did not base the final conclusion on).

We’ll leave Hone & McCullough’s analysis behind us (their analysis included many more variables, for one thing) and will just look at the strength and digit ratio data. The data was scraped from two scatter plots using the great and free online tool WebPlotDigitizer (so it might differ *slightly* from the original data, though I was pretty thorough) and can be downloaded here: 2d4d_hone_2012.csv. Here is how it looks:

d <- read.csv("2d4d_hone_2012.csv") qplot(ratio_2d4d, grip_kg, data = d, shape = I(1)) + facet_grid(sex ~ ., scales = "free")

Let’s first estimate the correlation for the male group using the classical `cor.test`

:

cor.test( ~ ratio_2d4d + grip_kg, data = d[d$sex == "male", ])