Basic Idea of Factor Analysis as a Data Reduction Method - Reviewing the Results of a Principal Components Analysis

Let us now look at some of the standard results from a principal components analysis. To reiterate, we are extracting factors that account for less and less variance. To simplify matters, one usually starts with the correlation matrix, where the variances of all variables are equal to 1.0. Therefore, the total variance in that matrix is equal to the number of variables. For example, if we have 10 variables each with a variance of 1 then the total variability that can potentially be extracted is equal to 10 times 1. Suppose that in the satisfaction study introduced earlier we included 10 items to measure different aspects of satisfaction at home and at work. The variance accounted for by successive factors would be summarized as follows:

Eigenvalues. In the second column (Eigenvalue) in the spreadsheet above, we find the variance on the new factors that were successively extracted. In the third column, these values are expressed as a percent of the total variance (in this example, 10). As we can see, factor 1 accounts for 61 percent of the variance, factor 2 for 18 percent, and so on. As expected, the sum of the eigenvalues is equal to the number of variables. The third column contains the cumulative variance extracted. The variances extracted by the factors are called the eigenvalues. This name derives from the computational issues involved (solving the so-called Eigenvalue problem, see also the Notes and Technical Information).

Eigenvalues and the Number-of-Factors problem. Now that we have a measure of how much variance each successive factor extracts, we can return to the question of how many factors to retain. As mentioned earlier, by its nature this is an arbitrary decision. However, there are some guidelines that are commonly used, and that, in practice, seem to yield the best results.

The Kaiser criterion. First, we can retain only factors with eigenvalues greater than 1. In essence this is like saying that, unless a factor extracts at least as much as the equivalent of one original variable, we drop it. This criterion was proposed by Kaiser (1960), and is probably the one most widely used. In our example above, using this criterion, we would retain 2 factors (principal components).

The scree test. A graphical method is the scree test first proposed by Cattell (1966). We can plot the eigenvalues shown in the spreadsheet above in a simple line plot.

Cattell suggests to find the place where the smooth decrease of eigenvalues appears to level off to the right of the plot. To the right of this point, presumably, one finds only "factorial scree" - "scree" is the geological term referring to the debris which collects on the lower part of a rocky slope. According to this criterion, we would probably retain 2 or 3 factors in our example above.

Which criterion to use. Both criteria have been studied in detail (Browne, 1968; Cattell & Jaspers, 1967; Hakstian, Rogers, & Cattell, 1982; Linn, 1968; Tucker, Koopman & Linn, 1969). Theoretically, one can evaluate those criteria by generating random databases on a particular number of factors. One can then see whether the number of factors is accurately detected by those criteria. Using this general technique, the first method (Kaiser criterion) sometimes retains too many factors, while the second technique (scree test) sometimes retains too few; however, both do quite well under normal conditions, that is, when there are relatively few factors and many cases. In practice, an additional important aspect is the extent to which a solution is interpretable. Therefore, one usually examines several solutions with more or fewer factors, and chooses the one that makes the best "sense." We will discuss this issue in the context of factor rotations below.

Principal Factors Analysis. Before we continue to examine the different aspects of the typical output from a principal components analysis, let us now introduce principal factors analysis. Let us return to our satisfaction questionnaire example to conceive of another "mental model" for factor analysis. We can think of subjects' responses as being dependent on two components. First, there are some underlying common factors, such as the "satisfaction-with-hobbies" factor we looked at before. Each item measures some part of this common aspect of satisfaction. Second, each item also captures a unique aspect of satisfaction that is not addressed by any other item.

Communalities. If this model is correct, then we should not expect that the factors will extract all variance from our items; rather, only that proportion that is due to the common factors and shared by several items. In the language of factor analysis, the proportion of variance of a particular item that is due to common factors (shared with other items) is called communality. Therefore, an additional task facing us when applying this model is to estimate the communalities for each variable, that is, the proportion of variance that each item has in common with other items. The proportion of variance that is unique to each item is then the respective item's total variance minus the communality. A common starting point is to use the squared multiple correlation of an item with all other items as an estimate of the communality (refer to Multiple Regression for details about multiple regression). Some authors have suggested various iterative "post-solution improvements" to the initial multiple regression communality estimate; for example, the so-called MINRES method (minimum residual factor method; Harman & Jones, 1966) will try various modifications to the factor loadings with the goal to minimize the residual (unexplained) sums of squares. Refer to the description of the Define Method of Factor Extraction dialog for the different methods available in the Factor Analysis module.

Principal factors vs. principal components. The defining characteristic then that distinguishes between the two factor analytic models is that in principal components analysis we assume that all variability in an item should be used in the analysis, while in principal factors analysis we only use the variability in an item that it has in common with the other items. A detailed discussion of the pros and cons of each approach is beyond the scope of this introduction (refer to the general references provided in the Introductory Overviews). In most cases, these two methods usually yield very similar results. However, principal components analysis is often preferred as a method for data reduction, while principal factors analysis is often preferred when the goal of the analysis is to detect structure (see Factor Analysis as a Classification Method).