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There are numerous discussions on this site concerning how to control for certain variables in regression analysis.

However, there exists unlimited variables in the universe. And in psychology/epidemiology research, there are a lot of demographic variables (e.g., age, gender, income, marital status, number of children, etc). When do we need to control for them? Is there a rule of thumb?

For example, if income is expected to affect my DV, but it is not significantly correlated to it, shall I control for it? Alternatively, if age is not expected to influence my DV but it is significantly correlated with my DV, shall I control for it?

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    $\begingroup$ (+1) While it may seem simple to answer: "When you as an expert in your field believe the variable to affect your outcome", there is often a lot of uncertainty what can and cannot affect the outcome. Moreover, 'correcting' for variables that need not be corrected for can actually worsen the quality of the estimates. $\endgroup$ – Frans Rodenburg Nov 17 '17 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ @FransRodenburg I think you should turn this into an answer. $\endgroup$ – Peter Flom Nov 17 '17 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterFlom Thanks, I actually meant to say that I find this a very difficult question myself, but I have given it a try. $\endgroup$ – Frans Rodenburg Nov 20 '17 at 6:36
  • $\begingroup$ What is the goal of your analysis? Do you want to claim that, say, income conditionally "predicts" your DV or to claim that it "affects" your DV? $\endgroup$ – Carlos Cinelli Nov 20 '17 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ So you should take a look here: stats.stackexchange.com/questions/59369/confounder-definition/… $\endgroup$ – Carlos Cinelli Nov 21 '17 at 1:17
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If there are theoretical grounds for suspecting a variable is a confounder, then it should be included in the model to correct for its effect. On the other hand, mediators should generally not be included in the model. While it might seem like a good idea to correct for as many potential confounders as possible, there are actually a good number of reasons not to.

When to Correct for a Variable

A good, yet not always helpful answer to this question is:

"When you as an expert in your field believe the variable to affect your outcome."

First, let's discuss why this is a good answer. There are many important reasons why it is a bad idea to correct for a large number of variables. Sure, there may be unlimited variables in the universe, but...

  1. ...these do not all have a unique effect on the outcome and the inclusion of variables with high pairwise correlation will result in multicolinearity;
  2. ...you don't have unlimited data and everything you model costs you degrees of freedom
  3. ...including (too) many variables (which poorly predict the outcome) results in overfitting.;

Multicolinearity occurs when an explanatory variable can itself be explained as a combination of other explanatory variables. In other words, including everything that might affect the outcome means that many of the variables will also have some effect on each other. To make matters worse, there need not even be high correlation between explanatory variables, as long as one or more can be explained in terms of the others.

Degrees of freedom are required to estimate every parameter. Including variables that affect the outcome marginally or not at all still costs you degrees of freedom, without gaining you an improvement in model fit. If you want to report the significance of estimates, this also means you will lose power for everything you try to correct for.

An overfitted model is fitting the stochastic part of the process, rather than the systematic part. In other words, a model with too many parameters will tend to explain variance in the outcome that is simply there due to natural random variability in the sample, rather than due to some underlying process. Overfitted models appear to perform really well on the sample, but have poor out-of-sample performance (i.e. generalize very poorly).

Hence, a theoretical justification for the inclusion of variables is generally preferred over adding more and more variables to correct for.

Another argument in favour of the answer is that there is no simple alternative to choosing the important variables "as an expert in the field". It might seem tempting to include every possibly involved variable and then just narrowing it down through some exhaustive search for the most important ones (known as stepwise regression), but this is actually a very bad idea.

Second, let's discuss why this is not always a useful answer. If expert knowledge can decide the inclusion of variables, this is the way to go. However, this approach assumes that the data generating process is already well understood and that this choice of variables can be reasonably made. Moreover, it assumes this expert knowledge to be correct! In practice, there is often a lot of uncertainty what can and cannot affect the outcome. Lurking variables which are excluded because they are not known to affect the outcome will not be discovered.

Because of this, there are many proposed alternatives to stepwise regression, most of which are some form of regularization. For example:

  • The LASSO penalty shrinks certain coefficients to zero, essentially selecting the non-zero ones;
  • Ridge regression does this in a way that respects pairwise correlation among predictors more, but cannot shrink to zero (i.e. cannot select variables);
  • Elastic net combines the penalties;
  • Horseshoe is yet another form of shrinkage intended to be a 'best of both';
  • Partial Least Squares deconstructs the explanatory variables and adds weights to the principal components based on their correlation with the outcome.

However, do keep in mind that there is no guarantee that LASSO or any other method will choose the right variables. It is still better to choose which to include based on expert knowledge, if possible. If there are enough observations, the predictive accuracy can help decide which model is best.

So does that mean we are forever stuck in a loophole of deciding on which variables to include? I don't think so and I think this is where exploratory analysis can help out. If you are really clueless about the inclusion of a set of candidate variables, perhaps the first study should merely investigate potential relationships and clearly state in the report the analysis is exploratory in nature. In a second study, new, independent dataset(s) can be used to verify which of these found relationships are not spurious. This is not too different from my field (biology), where large sets of genes, proteins or metabolites are studied with some 'shotgun' approach, followed by confirmation using a directed approach on new samples.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer. One quick follow-up question. If expert knowledge believes some variables are potential confounders, but they don’t have significant correlations with any IVs, DVs, and have low collinearity with other variables, shall we control for them? $\endgroup$ – JetLag Nov 20 '17 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ In the current model yes, in a future study perhaps not. Knowing their significance means they are in the current model, so excluding them based on this knowledge would be a form of stepwise regression. If however, the effect size is very small and insignificant, then perhaps in a consecutive study with new data you may opt to omit them from the model. $\endgroup$ – Frans Rodenburg Nov 20 '17 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps I should add that there is nothing wrong with combining regularization and expert knowledge. If you have solid grounds for including a large set of potentially confounding variables, you can consider shrinking their coefficients with e.g. ridge regression. $\endgroup$ – Frans Rodenburg Nov 20 '17 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ "When you as an expert in your field believe the variable to affect your outcome." Frans, this is not a precise criteria either, for example, mediators fall in this category and you don't want to control for them: stats.stackexchange.com/questions/59369/confounder-definition/… $\endgroup$ – Carlos Cinelli Nov 20 '17 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ You are right, I meant to discuss when to include potential confounders in my answer. I edited my post to mention mediation in the first paragraph to avoid confusion. $\endgroup$ – Frans Rodenburg Nov 21 '17 at 0:57
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Just to add one remark to @Frans Rodenburg's answer: Overadjustment might also be an issue. I.e. you don't want to control for variables for which it is not meaningful to keep them fixed when the variable of interested is varied. This is typical if the variable lies in the causal pathway from the exposure to the endpoint. For instance, if you model infant mortality with maternal age, you possibly don't want to control for birth weight, because the impact of maternal age is specifically due to the fact that it affects birth weight. The ceteris paribus would mean here that you vary maternal age with birth weight fixed which just not what we are interested in. Of course it might happen that maternal age has some indirect effect - i.e. something which is not mediated through birth weight - in that case the model is still meaningful.

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However, there exists unlimited variables in the universe. And in psychology/epidemiology research, there are a lot of demographic variables (e.g., age, gender, income, marital status, number of children, etc). When do we need to control for them? Is there a rule of thumb?

If you are worried about observational prediction, then variable selection is a natural consequence of your model selection criteria based on predictive performance. But you seem to be worried about bias for making causal inference. That is, you want to make scientific causal claims based on your results.

If that's the case, the problem of knowing which variables to select for the identification of a causal claim via adjustment has been (mathematically) solved: you should include in your regression the variables that satisfy the backdoor criterion --- that is, these are variables that block all the backdoor (confounding) paths from $X$ to $Y$, do not open other spurious paths, and do not mediate the effect you are trying to measure. You should also take a look here and here.

The backdoor is about identification. After that you have to consider efficiency. There might be variables which are not "confounders" but will help you get more precise estimates, so you might want to adjust for them. And if you have too many variables you know you need to control for, but too little data relative to the amount of variables, you might want to resort to regularization techniques, trading-off some bias for less variance --- but keeping in mind you're doing the regularization to optimize the inference with respect to a specific causal quantity, not overall observational prediction. For example, you might want to check double/debiased machine learning methods.

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