The Problem with Having Two Watches: Assessment of Fit When RMSEA and CFI Disagree

Keke Lai, Samuel B. Green

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

292 Scopus citations


The root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) and the comparative fit index (CFI) are two widely applied indices to assess fit of structural equation models. Because these two indices are viewed positively by researchers, one might presume that their values would yield comparable qualitative assessments of model fit for any data set. When RMSEA and CFI offer different evaluations of model fit, we argue that researchers are likely to be confused and potentially make incorrect research conclusions. We derive the necessary as well as the sufficient conditions for inconsistent interpretations of these indices. We also study inconsistency in results for RMSEA and CFI at the sample level. Rather than indicating that the model is misspecified in a particular manner or that there are any flaws in the data, the two indices can disagree because (a) they evaluate, by design, the magnitude of the model's fit function value from different perspectives; (b) the cutoff values for these indices are arbitrary; and (c) the meaning of “good” fit and its relationship with fit indices are not well understood. In the context of inconsistent judgments of fit using RMSEA and CFI, we discuss the implications of using cutoff values to evaluate model fit in practice and to design SEM studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalMultivariate Behavioral Research
StateAccepted/In press - Feb 1 2016


  • comparative fit index
  • fit indices
  • root mean square error of approximation
  • Structural equation modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Statistics and Probability
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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