Although covarying for potential confounds or nuisance variables is common in psychological research, relatively little is known about how the inclusion of covariates may influence the relations between psychological variables and indices of brain structure. In Part 1 of the current study, we conducted a descriptive review of relevant articles from the past two years of NeuroImage in order to identify the most commonly used covariates in work of this nature. Age, sex, and intracranial volume were found to be the most commonly used covariates, although the number of covariates used ranged from 0 to 14, with 37 different covariate sets across the 68 models tested. In Part 2, we used data from the Human Connectome Project to investigate the degree to which the addition of common covariates altered the relations between individual difference variables (i.e., personality traits, psychopathology, cognitive tasks) and regional gray matter volume (GMV), as well as the statistical significance of values associated with these effect sizes. Using traditional and random sampling approaches, our results varied widely, such that some covariate sets influenced the relations between the individual difference variables and GMV very little, while the addition of other covariate sets resulted in a substantially different pattern of results compared to models with no covariates. In sum, these results suggest that the use of covariates should be critically examined and discussed as part of the conversation on replicability in structural neuroimaging. We conclude by recommending that researchers pre-register their analytic strategy and present information on how relations differ based on the inclusion of covariates.


Courtland S. Hyatt, Max M. Owens, Michael L. Crowe, Nathan T. Carter, Donald R. Lynam, Joshua D. Miller, The quandary of covarying: A brief review and empirical examination of covariate use in structural neuroimaging studies on psychological variables, NeuroImage, Volume 205, 2020, 116225, ISSN 1053-8119, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.116225.


Structural MRI, Covariate, Individual differences, Pre-registration, Analytic flexibility

Date of this Version


Included in

Psychology Commons