Thinking thrice about sum scores, and then some more about measurement and analysis

Keith F. Widaman*, William Revelle

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Measurement is fundamental to all research in psychology and should be accorded greater scrutiny than typically occurs. Among other claims, McNeish and Wolf (Thinking twice about sum scores. Behavior Research Methods, 52, 2287-2305) argued that use of sum scores (a) implies that a highly constrained latent variable model underlies items comprising a scale, and (b) may misrepresent or bias relations with other criteria. The central claim by McNeish and Wolf that use of sum scores requires the assumption that a parallel test model underlies item responses is incorrect and without psychometric merit. Instead, if a set of items is unidimensional, estimators of reliability are available even if the factor model underlying the set of items does not have a highly constrained form. Thus, dimensionality of a set of items is the key issue, and whether strict constraints on parameter estimates do or do not hold dictate the appropriate way to estimate reliability. McNeish and Wolf also claimed that more precise forms of scoring, such as estimating factor scores, would be preferable to sum scores. We provide analytic bases for reliability estimation and then provide several demonstrations of reliability estimation and the relative advantages of sum scores and factor scores. We contend that several claims by McNeish and Wolf are questionable and that, as a result, multiple recommendations they made and conclusions they drew are incorrect. The upshot is that, once the dimensional structure of a set of items is verified, sum scores often have a solid psychometric basis and therefore are frequently quite adequate for psychological research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)788-806
Number of pages19
JournalBehavior Research Methods
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2023


  • Latent variable models
  • Measurement
  • Psychometrics
  • Reliability
  • Sum scores

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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