Spearman's rho - overview

This page offers structured overviews of one or more selected methods. Add additional methods for comparisons by clicking on the dropdown button in the right-hand column. To practice with a specific method click the button at the bottom row of the table

Spearman's rho
Wilcoxon signed-rank test
Variable 1Independent variable
One of ordinal level2 paired groups
Variable 2Dependent variable
One of ordinal levelOne quantitative of interval or ratio level
Null hypothesisNull hypothesis
H0: $\rho_s = 0$

$\rho_s$ is the unknown Spearman correlation in the population. The Spearman correlation is a measure for the strength and direction of the monotonic relationship between two variables of at least ordinal measurement level.

In words, the null hypothesis would be:

H0: there is no monotonic relationship between the two variables in the population
H0: $m = 0$

$m$ is the population median of the difference scores. A difference score is the difference between the first score of a pair and the second score of a pair.

Several different formulations of the null hypothesis can be found in the literature, and we do not agree with all of them. Make sure you (also) learn the one that is given in your text book or by your teacher.
Alternative hypothesisAlternative hypothesis
H1 two sided: $\rho_s \neq 0$
H1 right sided: $\rho_s > 0$
H1 left sided: $\rho_s < 0$
H1 two sided: $m \neq 0$
H1 right sided: $m > 0$
H1 left sided: $m < 0$
AssumptionsAssumptions
  • Sample of pairs is a simple random sample from the population of pairs. That is, pairs are independent of one another
Note: this assumption is only important for the significance test, not for the correlation coefficient itself. The correlation coefficient itself just measures the strength of the monotonic relationship between two variables.
  • The population distribution of the difference scores is symmetric
  • Sample of difference scores is a simple random sample from the population of difference scores. That is, difference scores are independent of one another
Note: sometimes it considered sufficient for the data to be measured at an ordinal scale, rather than an interval or ratio scale. However, since the test statistic is based on ranked difference scores, we need to know whether a change in scores from, say, 6 to 7 is larger than/smaller than/equal to a change from 5 to 6. This is impossible to know for ordinal scales, since for these scales the size of the difference between values is meaningless.
Test statisticTest statistic
$t = \dfrac{r_s \times \sqrt{N - 2}}{\sqrt{1 - r_s^2}} $
where $r_s$ is the sample Spearman correlation and $N$ is the sample size. The sample Spearman correlation $r_s$ is equal to the Pearson correlation applied to the rank scores.
Two different types of test statistics can be used; both will result in the same test outcome. We will denote the first option the $W_1$ statistic (also known as the $T$ statistic), and the second option the $W_2$ statistic. In order to compute each of the test statistics, follow the steps below:
  1. For each subject, compute the sign of the difference score $\mbox{sign}_d = \mbox{sgn}(\mbox{score}_2 - \mbox{score}_1)$. The sign is 1 if the difference is larger than zero, -1 if the diffence is smaller than zero, and 0 if the difference is equal to zero.
  2. For each subject, compute the absolute value of the difference score $|\mbox{score}_2 - \mbox{score}_1|$.
  3. Exclude subjects with a difference score of zero. This leaves us with a remaining number of difference scores equal to $N_r$.
  4. Assign ranks $R_d$ to the $N_r$ remaining absolute difference scores. The smallest absolute difference score corresponds to a rank score of 1, and the largest absolute difference score corresponds to a rank score of $N_r$. If there are ties, assign them the average of the ranks they occupy.
Then compute the test statistic:

  • $W_1 = \sum\, R_d^{+}$
    or
    $W_1 = \sum\, R_d^{-}$
    That is, sum all ranks corresponding to a positive difference or sum all ranks corresponding to a negative difference. Theoratically, both definitions will result in the same test outcome. However:
    • tables with critical values for $W_1$ are usually based on the smaller of $\sum\, R_d^{+}$ and $\sum\, R_d^{-}$. So if you are using such a table, pick the smaller one.
    • If you are using the normal approximation to find the $p$ value, it makes things most straightforward if you use $W_1 = \sum\, R_d^{+}$ (if you use $W_1 = \sum\, R_d^{-}$, the right and left sided alternative hypotheses 'flip').
  • $W_2 = \sum\, \mbox{sign}_d \times R_d$
    That is, for each remaining difference score, multiply the rank of the absolute difference score by the sign of the difference score, and then sum all of the products.
Sampling distribution of $t$ if H0 were trueSampling distribution of $W_1$ and of $W_2$ if H0 were true
Approximately the $t$ distribution with $N - 2$ degrees of freedomSampling distribution of $W_1$:
If $N_r$ is large, $W_1$ is approximately normally distributed with mean $\mu_{W_1}$ and standard deviation $\sigma_{W_1}$ if the null hypothesis were true. Here $$\mu_{W_1} = \frac{N_r(N_r + 1)}{4}$$ $$\sigma_{W_1} = \sqrt{\frac{N_r(N_r + 1)(2N_r + 1)}{24}}$$ Hence, if $N_r$ is large, the standardized test statistic $$z = \frac{W_1 - \mu_{W_1}}{\sigma_{W_1}}$$ follows approximately the standard normal distribution if the null hypothesis were true.

Sampling distribution of $W_2$:
If $N_r$ is large, $W_2$ is approximately normally distributed with mean $0$ and standard deviation $\sigma_{W_2}$ if the null hypothesis were true. Here $$\sigma_{W_2} = \sqrt{\frac{N_r(N_r + 1)(2N_r + 1)}{6}}$$ Hence, if $N_r$ is large, the standardized test statistic $$z = \frac{W_2}{\sigma_{W_2}}$$ follows approximately the standard normal distribution if the null hypothesis were true.

If $N_r$ is small, the exact distribution of $W_1$ or $W_2$ should be used.

Note: the formula for the standard deviations $\sigma_{W_1}$ and $\sigma_{W_2}$ is more complicated if ties are present in the data.
Significant?Significant?
Two sided: Right sided: Left sided: For large samples, the table for standard normal probabilities can be used:
Two sided: Right sided: Left sided:
Example contextExample context
Is there a monotonic relationship between physical health and mental health?Is the median of the differences between the mental health scores before and after an intervention different from 0?
SPSSSPSS
Analyze > Correlate > Bivariate...
  • Put your two variables in the box below Variables
  • Under Correlation Coefficients, select Spearman
Analyze > Nonparametric Tests > Legacy Dialogs > 2 Related Samples...
  • Put the two paired variables in the boxes below Variable 1 and Variable 2
  • Under Test Type, select the Wilcoxon test
JamoviJamovi
Regression > Correlation Matrix
  • Put your two variables in the white box at the right
  • Under Correlation Coefficients, select Spearman
  • Under Hypothesis, select your alternative hypothesis
T-Tests > Paired Samples T-Test
  • Put the two paired variables in the box below Paired Variables, one on the left side of the vertical line and one on the right side of the vertical line
  • Under Tests, select Wilcoxon rank
  • Under Hypothesis, select your alternative hypothesis
Practice questionsPractice questions