Testing the significance of a correlation with nonnormal data: comparison of Pearson, Spearman, transformation, and resampling approaches

Psychol Methods. 2012 Sep;17(3):399-417. doi: 10.1037/a0028087. Epub 2012 May 7.


It is well known that when data are nonnormally distributed, a test of the significance of Pearson's r may inflate Type I error rates and reduce power. Statistics textbooks and the simulation literature provide several alternatives to Pearson's correlation. However, the relative performance of these alternatives has been unclear. Two simulation studies were conducted to compare 12 methods, including Pearson, Spearman's rank-order, transformation, and resampling approaches. With most sample sizes (n ≥ 20), Type I and Type II error rates were minimized by transforming the data to a normal shape prior to assessing the Pearson correlation. Among transformation approaches, a general purpose rank-based inverse normal transformation (i.e., transformation to rankit scores) was most beneficial. However, when samples were both small (n ≤ 10) and extremely nonnormal, the permutation test often outperformed other alternatives, including various bootstrap tests.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Linear Models*
  • Monte Carlo Method
  • Nonlinear Dynamics*
  • Sample Size
  • Statistical Distributions
  • Statistics as Topic / methods*
  • Statistics, Nonparametric