Evidence That Psychopathology Symptom Networks Have Limited Replicability

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Abstract

Network analysis is quickly gaining popularity in psychopathology research as a method that aims to reveal causal relationships among individual symptoms. To date, 4 main types of psychopathology networks have been proposed: (a) association networks, (b) regularized concentration networks, (c) relative importance networks, and (d) directed acyclic graphs. The authors examined the replicability of these analyses based on symptoms of major depression and generalized anxiety between and within 2 highly similar epidemiological samples (i.e., the National Comorbidity Survey—Replication [n = 9282] and the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing [n = 8841]). Although association networks were stable, the 3 other types of network analysis (i.e., the conditional independence networks) had poor replicability between and within methods and samples. The detailed aspects of the models—such as the estimation of specific edges and the centrality of individual nodes—were particularly unstable. For example, 44% of the symptoms were estimated as the “most influential” on at least 1 centrality index across the 6 conditional independence networks in the full samples, and only 13–21% of the edges were consistently estimated across these networks. One of the likely reasons for the instability of the networks is the predominance of measurement error in the assessment of individual symptoms. The authors discuss the implications of these findings for the growing field of psychopathology network research, and conclude that novel results originating from psychopathology networks should be held to higher standards of evidence before they are ready for dissemination or implementation in the field.

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