Lack of Group-To-Individual Generalizability Is a Threat to Human Subjects Research

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Jul 3;115(27):E6106-E6115. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1711978115. Epub 2018 Jun 18.

Abstract

Only for ergodic processes will inferences based on group-level data generalize to individual experience or behavior. Because human social and psychological processes typically have an individually variable and time-varying nature, they are unlikely to be ergodic. In this paper, six studies with a repeated-measure design were used for symmetric comparisons of interindividual and intraindividual variation. Our results delineate the potential scope and impact of nonergodic data in human subjects research. Analyses across six samples (with 87-94 participants and an equal number of assessments per participant) showed some degree of agreement in central tendency estimates (mean) between groups and individuals across constructs and data collection paradigms. However, the variance around the expected value was two to four times larger within individuals than within groups. This suggests that literatures in social and medical sciences may overestimate the accuracy of aggregated statistical estimates. This observation could have serious consequences for how we understand the consistency between group and individual correlations, and the generalizability of conclusions between domains. Researchers should explicitly test for equivalence of processes at the individual and group level across the social and medical sciences.

Keywords: ecological fallacy; generalizability; idiographic science; replicability; research methodology.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety Disorders / therapy*
  • Bipolar Disorder / therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Psychotherapy, Group*