# Understanding Partial Correlation

I'm having some trouble fully understanding partial correlation and I was wondering if some of you can shred some light on my confusion.

Let's consider the following scenario: It is a known fact that heart disease is related to social and economic status. However, I want to understand if Anger is also a factor. So the obvious next step is to find the correlation between Anger and heart disease while controlling for social and economic status.

There are a couple ways I can do this. The one popular way that I found online was to use partial correlation (ppcor in R). However, when I looked into how they did partial correlation, it didn't make a lot of sense to me mathematically. The way they do it is: let's say they have 3 variables ($$X, Y , Z$$) and we want to correlate $$X$$ and $$Y$$ while taking into consideration $$Z$$, they take the residuals from correlating $$X$$ and $$Y$$, then $$X$$ and $$Z$$, then they correlated the two residuals to get the result.

This doesn't make a lot of sense to me, if residuals are variance that are not explained through correlation, then wouldn't it make more sense to only take the residuals from $$X$$ and $$Z$$, then correlate that residual with $$Y$$, that way we can see if $$Y$$ can explain the variance that is not explained by $$X$$ and $$Z$$, therefore "controlling" for $$Z$$?

• residuals from correlating X and Y Correlation cannot produce residuals. It is regression - directed correlation - that can. X is regressed by Z and residuals saved (i.e. Z is washed out from X). Y is regressed by Z and residuals saved (i.e. Z is washed out from Y). All three variables must be standardized initially. Then the two residuals correlate with each other. – ttnphns Jun 19 '16 at 20:22
• Regarding the statement "So the obvious next step is to find the correlation between Anger and heart disease while controlling for social and economic status" : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_imply_causation – shrey Jun 20 '16 at 10:22
• how is anger measured – develarist Aug 26 at 6:47

You say that, with $X=\alpha_1+\beta_1Z+\epsilon_1$ and $X=\alpha_2+\beta_2Z+\epsilon_2$, you would prefer to consider $Corr(\epsilon_1,Y)$ rather than $Corr(\epsilon_1,\epsilon_2)$ . However, please notice that, given $\epsilon_1$ is independent from $Z$, you would not change the covariance ($Cov(\epsilon_1,Y)=Cov(\epsilon_1,\epsilon_2)$), so you would only replace the standard error of $\epsilon_2$ with the one of $Y$. You would thus lead your correlation toward zero for no reason. In your case (let's call Anger $A$, SocioEconomic Status $SES$ and Heart Disease $HD$), you would try to see how much "residual" anger (after controlling for $SES$) affects $HD$. The problem is that, after regressing $A$ on $SES$, what is left (the residuals) cannot explain the part of $HD$ that has already been explained by $SES$. So, by using $HD$ instead of its residuals, you would basically calculate a correlation that would be bounded (both from below and above) by the explanatory power of $SES$ on $HD$. In practice, after controlling for $SES$, in this way you'd have that the partial correlation between $HD$ and any other variable would not range between $-1$ and $+1$, but between $-k$ and $+k$ (with $k<1$, and the higher the explanatory power of $SES$ on $HD$, the lower $k$).