Power estimation for correlation analyses

Following the previous posts on small n correlations [post 1][post 2][post 3], in this post we’re going to consider power estimation (if you do not care about power, but you’d rather focus on estimation, this post is for you). 

To get started, let’s look at examples of n=1000 samples from bivariate populations with known correlations (rho), with rho increasing from 0.1 to 0.9 in steps of 0.1. For each rho, we draw a random sample and plot Y as a function of X. The variances of the two correlated variables are independent – there is homoscedasticity. Later we will look at heteroscedasticity, when the variance of Y varies with X.


For the same distributions illustrated in the previous figure, we compute the proportion of positive Pearson’s correlation tests for different sample sizes. This gives us power curves (here based on simulations with 50,000 samples). We also include rho = 0 to determine the proportion of false positives.


Power increases with sample size and with rho. When rho = 0, the proportion of positive tests is the proportion of false positives. It should be around 0.05 for a test with alpha = 0.05. This is the case here, as Pearson’s correlation is well behaved for bivariate normal data.

For a given expected population correlation and a desired long run power value, we can use interpolation to find out the matching sample size.

To achieve at least 80% power given an expected population rho of 0.4, the minimum sample size is 46 observations.

To achieve at least 90% power given an expected population rho of 0.3, the minimum sample size is 118 observations.


Alternatively, for a given sample size and a desired power, we can determine the minimum effect size we can hope to detect. For instance, given n = 40 and a desired power of at least 90%, the minimum effect size we can detect is 0.49.

So far, we have only considered situations where we sample from bivariate normal distributions. However, Wilcox (2012 p. 444-445) describes 6 aspects of data that affect Pearson’s r:

  • outliers

  • the magnitude of the slope around which points are clustered

  • curvature

  • the magnitude of the residuals

  • restriction of range

  • heteroscedasticity

The effect of outliers on Pearson’s and Spearman’s correlations is described in detail in Pernet et al. (2012) and Rousselet et al. (2012).

Next we focus on heteroscedasticity. Let’s look at Wilcox’s heteroscedasticity example (2012, p. 445). If we correlate variable X with variable Y, heteroscedasticity means that the variance of Y depends on X. Wilcox considers this example:

X and Y have normal distributions with both means equal to zero. […] X and Y have variance 1 unless |X|>0.5, in which case Y has standard deviation |X|.”

Here is an example of such data:


Next, Wilcox (2012) considers the effect of this heteroscedastic situation on false positives. We superimpose results for the homoscedastic case for comparison. In the homoscedastic case, as expected for a test with alpha = 0.05, the proportion of false positives is very close to 0.05 at every sample size. In the heteroscedastic case, instead of 5%, the number of false positives is between 12% and 19%. The number of false positives actually increases with sample size! That’s because the standard T statistics associated with Pearson’s correlation assumes homoscedasticity, so the formula is incorrect when there is heteroscedasticity.


As a consequence, when Pearson’s test is positive, it doesn’t always imply the existence of a correlation. There could be dependence due to heteroscedasticity, in the absence of a correlation.

Let’s consider another heteroscedastic situation, in which the variance of Y increases linearly with X. This could correspond for instance to situations in which cognitive performance or income are correlated with age – we might expect the variance amongst participants to increase with age.

We keep rho constant at 0.4 and increase the maximum variance from 1 (homoscedastic case) to 9. That is, the variance of Y linear increases from 1 to the maximum variance as a function of X.


For rho = 0, we can compute the proportion of false positives as a function of both sample size and heteroscedasticity. In the next figure, variance refers to the maximum variance. 


From 0.05 for the homoscedastic case (max variance = 1), the proportion of false positives increases to 0.07-0.08 for a max variance of 9. This relatively small increase in the number of false positives could have important consequences if 100’s of labs are engaged in fishing expeditions and they publish everything with p<0.05. However, it seems we shouldn’t worry much about linear heteroscedasticity as long as sample sizes are sufficiently large and we report estimates with appropriate confidence intervals. An easy way to build confidence intervals when there is heteroscedasticity is to use the percentile bootstrap (see Pernet et al. 2012 for illustrations and Matlab code).

Finally, we can run the same simulation for rho = 0.4. Power progressively decreases with increasing heteroscedasticity. Put another way, with larger heteroscedasticity, larger sample sizes are needed to achieve the same power.


We can zoom in:


The vertical bars mark approximately a 13 observation increase to keep power at 0.8 between a max variance of 0 and 9. This decrease in power can be avoided by using the percentile bootstrap or robust correlation techniques, or both (Wilcox, 2012).


The results presented in this post are based on simulations. You could also use a sample size calculator for correlation analyses – for instance this one.

But running simulations has huge advantages. For instance, you can compare multiple estimators of association in various situations. In a simulation, you can also include as much information as you have about your target populations. For instance, if you want to correlate brain measurements with response times, there might be large datasets you could use to perform data-driven simulations (e.g. UK biobank), or you could estimate the shape of the sampling distributions to draw samples from appropriate theoretical distributions (maybe a gamma distribution for brain measurements and an exGaussian distribution for response times).

Simulations also put you in charge, instead of relying on a black box, which most likely will only cover Pearson’s correlation in ideal conditions, and not robust alternatives when there are outliers or heteroscedasticity or other potential issues.

The R code to reproduce the simulations and the figures is on GitHub.


Pernet, C.R., Wilcox, R. & Rousselet, G.A. (2012) Robust correlation analyses: false positive and power validation using a new open source matlab toolbox. Front Psychol, 3, 606.

Rousselet, G.A. & Pernet, C.R. (2012) Improving standards in brain-behavior correlation analyses. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6, 119.

Wilcox, R.R. (2012) Introduction to robust estimation and hypothesis testing. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.


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