What does a population-level mediation reveal about individual people?

Paul C. Bogdan, Víctor H. Cervantes, Michel Regenwetter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mediation analysis investigates the covariation of variables in a population of interest. In contrast, the resolution level of psychological theory, at its core, aims to reach all the way to the behaviors, mental processes, and relationships of individual persons. It would be a logical error to presume that the population-level pattern of behavior revealed by a mediation analysis directly describes all, or even many, individual members of the population. Instead, to reconcile collective covariation with theoretical claims about individual behavior, one needs to look beyond abstract aggregate trends. Taking data quality as a given and a mediation model’s estimated parameters as accurate population-level depictions, what can one say about the number of people properly described by the linkages in that mediation analysis? How many individuals are exceptions to that pattern or pathway? How can we bridge the gap between psychological theory and analytic method? We provide a simple framework for understanding how many people actually align with the pattern of relationships revealed by a population-level mediation. Additionally, for those individuals who are exceptions to that pattern, we tabulate how many people mismatch which features of the mediation pattern. Consistent with the person-oriented research paradigm, understanding the distribution of alignment and mismatches goes beyond the realm of traditional variable-level mediation analysis. Yet, such a tabulation is key to designing potential interventions. It provides the basis for predicting how many people stand to either benefit from, or be disadvantaged by, which type of intervention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalBehavior Research Methods
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • Individual differences
  • Mediation
  • Scientific reasoning fallacies
  • Theoretical scope

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychology (miscellaneous)
  • General Psychology


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