Inattentive responding can induce spurious associations between task behavior and symptom measures
A common research design in the field of computational psychiatry involves leveraging the power of online participant recruitment to assess correlations between behavior in cognitive tasks and the self-reported severity of psychiatric symptoms in large, diverse samples. Although large online samples have many advantages for psychiatric research, some potential pitfalls of this research design are not widely understood. Here we detail circumstances in which entirely spurious correlations may arise between task behavior and symptom severity as a result of inadequate screening of careless or low-effort responding on psychiatric symptom surveys. Specifically, since many psychiatric symptom surveys have asymmetric ground-truth score distributions in the general population, participants who respond carelessly on these surveys will show apparently elevated symptom levels. If these participants are similarly careless in their task performance, and are not excluded from analysis, this may result in a spurious association between greater symptom scores and worse behavioral task performance. Here, we demonstrate exactly this pattern of results in N = 386 participants recruited online to complete a self-report symptom battery and a short reversal-learning choice task. We show that many behavior-symptom correlations are entirely abolished when participants flagged for careless responding on surveys are excluded from analysis. We also show that exclusion based on task performance alone is not sufficient to prevent these spurious correlations. Of note, we demonstrate that false-positive rates for these spurious correlations increase with sample size, contrary to common assumptions. We offer guidance on how researchers using this general experimental design can guard against this issue in future research; in particular, we recommend the adoption of screening methods for self-report measures that are currently uncommon in this field.