Factor analysis, causal indicators and quality of life

P. M. Fayers*, D. J. Hand

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

221 Citations (Scopus)


Exploratory factor analysis (EFA) remains one of the standard and most widely used methods for demonstrating construct validity of new instruments. However, the model for EFA makes assumptions which may not be applicable to all quality of life (QOL) instruments, and as a consequence the results from EFA may be misleading. In particular, EFA assumes that the underlying construct of QOL (and any postulated subscales or 'factors') may be regarded as being reflected by the items in those factors or subscales. QOL instruments, however, frequently contain items such as diseases, symptoms or treatment side effects, which are 'causal indicators.' These items may cause reduction in QOL for those patients experiencing them, but the reverse relationship need not apply: not all patients with a poor QOL need be experiencing the same set of symptoms. Thus a high level of a symptom item may imply that a patient's QOL is likely to be poor, but a poor level of QOL need not imply that the patient probably suffers from that symptom. This is the reverse of the common EFA model, in which it is implicitly assumed that changes in QOL and any subscales 'cause' or are likely to be reflected by corresponding changes in all their constituent items; thus the items in EFA are called 'effect indicators'. Furthermore, disease-related clusters of symptoms, or treatment-induced side-effects, may result in different studies finding different sets of items being highly correlated; for example, a study involving lung cancer patients receiving surgery and chemotherapy might find one set of highly correlated symptoms, whilst prostate cancer patients receiving hormone therapy would have a very different symptom correlation structure. Since EFA is based upon analyzing the correlation matrix and assuming all items to be effect indicators, it will extract factors representing consequences of the disease or treatment. These factors are likely to vary between different patient subgroups, according to the mode of treatment or the disease type and stage. Such factors contain little information about the relationship between the items and any underlying QOL constructs. Factor analysis is largely irrelevant as a method of scale validation for those QOL instruments that contain causal indicators, and should only be used with items which are effect indicators.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-150
Number of pages12
JournalQuality of Life Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 1997

Bibliographical note

We are grateful to the MRC Colorectal Cancer Working Party and the clinical co-ordinator of the CR04 randomized trial (M. T. Seymour) for allowing QOL
data from that trial to be used for the examples in this paper.


  • causal indicators
  • construct validity
  • factor analysis
  • quality of life instruments


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