some thoughtful comments on automatic measure abbreviation

In the comments on my last post, Sanjay Srivastava had some excellent thoughts/concerns about the general approach of automating measure abbreviation using a genetic algorithm. They’re valid concerns that might come up for other people too, so I thought I’d discuss them here in more detail. Here’s Sanjay:

Lew Goldberg emailed me a copy of your paper a while back and asked what I thought of it. I’m pasting my response below — I’d be curious to hear your take on it. (In this email “he” is you and “you” is he because I was writing to Lew…)

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1. So this is what it feels like to be replaced by a machine.

I’m not sure if Sanjay thinks this is a good or a bad thing? I guess my own feeling is that it’s a good thing to the extent that it makes personality measurement more efficient and frees researchers up to use that time (both during data collection and measure development) for other productive things like eating M&M’s on the couch and devising the most diabolically clever April Fool’s joke for next year to make up for the fact that you forgot to do it this year writing papers, and a bad one to the extent that people take this as a license to stop thinking carefully about what they’re doing when they’re shortening or administering questionnaire measures. But provided people retain a measure of skepticism and cautiousness in applying this type of approach, I’m optimistic that the result will be a large net gain.

2. The convergent correlations were a little low in studies 2 and 3. You’d expect shortened scales to have less reliability and validity, of course, but that didn’t go all the way in covering the difference. He explained that this was because the AMBI scales draw on a different item pool than the proprietary measures, which makes sense. wever, that makes it hard to evaluate the utility of the approach. If you compare how the full IPIP facet scales correlate with the proprietary NEO (which you’ve published here: http://ipip.ori.org/newNEO_FacetsTable.htm) against his Table 2, for example, it looks like the shortening algorithm is losing some information. Whether that’s better or worse than a rationally shortened scale is hard to say.

This is an excellent point, and I do want to reiterate that the abbreviation process isn’t magic; you can’t get something for free, and you’re almost invariably going to lose some fidelity in your measurement when you shorten any measure. That said, I actually feel pretty good about the degree of convergence I report in the paper. Sanjay already mentions one reason the convergent correlations seem lower than what you might expect: the new measures are composed of  different items than the old ones, so they’re not going to share many of the same sources of error. That means the convergent correlations will necessarily be lower, but isn’t necessarily a problem in a broader sense. But I think there are also two other, arguably more important, reasons why the convergence might seem deceptively low.

One is that the degree of convergence is bounded by the test-retest reliability of the original measures. Because the items in the IPIP pools were administered in batches spanning about a decade, whereas each of the proprietary measures (e.g., the NEO-PI-R) were administered on one occasion, the net result is that many of the items being used to predict personality traits were actually filled out several years before or after the personality measures in question. If you look at the long-term test-retest reliability of some of the measures I abbreviated (and there actually isn’t all that much test-retest data of that sort out there), it’s not clear that it’s much higher than what I report, even for the original measures. In other words, if you don’t generally see test-retest correlations across several years greater than .6 – .8 for the real NEO-PI-R scales, you can’t really expect to do any better with an abbreviated measure. But that probably says more about the reliability of narrowly-defined personality traits than about the abbreviation process.

The other reason the convergent correlations seem lower than you might expect, which I actually think is the big one, is that I reported only the cross-validated coefficients in the paper. In other words, I used only half of the data to abbreviate measures like the NEO-PI-R and HEXACO-PI, and then used the other half to obtain unbiased estimates of the true degree of convergence. This is technically the right way to do things, because if you don’t cross-validate, you’re inevitably going to capitalize on chance. If you use fit a model to a particular set of data, and then use the very same data to ask the question “how well does the model fit the data?” you’re essentially cheating–or, to put it more mildly, your estimates are going to be decidedly “optimistic”. You could argue it’s a relatively benign kind of cheating, because almost everyone does it, but that doesn’t make it okay from a technical standpoint.

When you look at it this way, the comparison of the IPIP representation of the NEO-PI-R with the abbreviated representation of the NEO-PI-R I generated in my paper isn’t really a fair one, because the IPIP measure Lew Goldberg came up with wasn’t cross-validated. Lew simply took the ten items that most strongly predicted each NEO-PI-R scale and grouped them together (with some careful rational inspection and modification, to be sure). That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the IPIP measures; I’ve used them on multiple occasions myself, and have no complaints. They’re perfectly good measures that I think stand in really well for the (proprietary) originals. My point is just that the convergent correlations reported on the IPIP website are likely to be somewhat inflated relative to the truth.

The nice thing is that we can directly compare the AMBI (the measure I developed in my paper) with the IPIP version of the NEO-PI-R on a level footing by looking at the convergent correlations for the AMBI using only the training data. If you look at the validation (i.e., unbiased) estimates for the AMBI, which is what Sanjay’s talking about here, the mean convergent correlation for the 30 scales of the NEO-PI-R is .63, which is indeed much lower than the .73 reported for the IPIP version of the NEO-PI-R. Personally I’d still probably argue that .63 with 108 items is better than .73 with 300 items, but it’s a subjective question, and I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who preferred the latter. But again, the critical point is that this isn’t a fair comparison. If you make a fair comparison and look at the mean convergent correlation in the training data, it’s .69 for the AMBI, which is much closer to the IPIP data. Given that the AMBI version is just over 1/3rd the length of the IPIP version, I think the choice here becomes more clear-cut, and I doubt that there are many contexts where the (mean) difference between .69 and .73 would have meaningful practical implications.

It’s also worth remembering that nothing says you have to go with the 108-item measure I reported in the paper. The beauty of the GA approach is that you can quite easily generate a NEO-PI-R analog of any length you like. So if your goal isn’t so much to abbreviate the NEO-PI-R as to obtain a non-proprietary analog (and indeed, the IPIP version of the NEO-PI-R is actually longer than the NEO-PI-R, which contains 240 items), I think there’s a very good chance you could do better than the IPIP measure using substantially fewer than 300 items (but more than 108).

In fact, if you really had a lot of time on your hands, and wanted to test this question more thoroughly, what I think you’d want to do is run the GA with systematically varying item costs (i.e., you run the exact same procedure on the same data, but change the itemCost parameter a little bit each time). That way, you could actually plot out a curve showing you the degree of convergence with the original measure as a function of the length of the new measure (this is functionality I’d like to add to the GA code I released when I have the time, but probably not in the near future). I don’t really know what the sweet spot would be, but I can tell you from extensive experimentation that you get diminishing returns pretty quickly. In other words, I just don’t think you’re going to be able to get convergent correlations much higher than .7 on average (this only holds for the IPIP data, obviously; you might do much better using data collected over shorter timespans, or using subsets of items from the original measures). So in that sense, I like where I ended up (i.e., 108 items that still recapture the original quite well).

3. Ultimately I’d like to see a few substantive studies that run the GA-shortened scales alongside the original scales. The column-vector correlations that he reported were hard to evaluate — I’d like to see the actual predictions of behavior, not just summaries. But this seems like a promising approach.

[BTW, that last sentence is the key one. I'm looking forward to seeing more of what you and others can do with this approach.]

When I was writing the paper, I did initially want to include a supplementary figure showing the full-blown matrix of traits predicting the low-level behaviors Sanjay is alluding to (which are part of Goldberg’s massive dataset), but it seemed kind of daunting to present because there are 60 behavioral variables, and most of the correlations were very weak (not just for the AMBI measure–I mean they were weak for the original NEO-PI-R). So you would be looking at a 30 x 60 matrix full of mostly near-zero correlations, which seemed pretty uninformative. So to answer basically the same concern, what I did instead was show a supplementary figure showing a 30 x 5 matrix that captures the relation between the 30 facets of the NEO-PI-R and the Big Five as rated by participants’ peers (i.e., an independent measure of personality). Here’s that figure (click to enlarge):

big_five_peer

What I’m presenting is the same correlation matrix for three different versions of the NEO-PI-R: the AMBI version I generated (on the left), and the original (i.e., real) NEO-PI-R, for both the training and validation samples. The important point to note is that the pattern of correlations with an external set of criterion variables is very similar for all three measures. It isn’t identical of course, but you shouldn’t expect it to be. (In fact, if you look at the rightmost two columns, that gives you a sense of how you can get relatively different correlations even for exactly the same measure and subjects when the sample is randomly divided in two. That’s just sampling variability.) There are, in fairness, one or two blips where the AMBI version does something quite different (e..g, impulsiveness predicts peer-rated Conscientiousness for the AMBI version but not the other two). But overall, I feel pretty good about the AMBI measure when I look at this figure. I don’t think you’re losing very much in terms of predictive power or specificity, whereas I think you’re gaining a lot in time savings.

Having said all that, I couldn’t agree more with Sanjay’s final point, which is that the proof is really in the pudding (who came up with that expression? Bill Cosby?). I’ve learned the hard way that it’s really easy to come up with excellent theoretical and logical reasons for why something should or shouldn’t work, yet when you actually do the study to test your impeccable reasoning, the empirical results often surprise you, and then you’re forced to confront the reality that you’re actually quite dumb (and wrong). So it’s certainly possible that, for reasons I haven’t anticipated, something will go profoundly awry when people actually try to use these abbreviated measures in practice. And then I’ll have to delete this blog, change my name, and go into hiding. But I really don’t think that’s very likely. And I’m willing to stake a substantial chunk of my own time and energy on it (I’d gladly stake my reputation on it too, but I don’t really have one!); I’ve already started using these measures in my own studies–e.g., in a blogging study I’m conducting online here–with promising preliminary results. Ultimately, as with everything else, time will tell whether or not the effort is worth it.

One thought on “some thoughtful comments on automatic measure abbreviation”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to reply. My comment about being replaced by machines was a joke (I think). I don’t want to go back to the days where our predecessors had to rotate their factor matrices by hand, for example. On the other hand, if SPSS 45.0 comes out with a Genetic procedure in the pulldown menu, I’m going to reserve the right to play the part of the crotchety old emeritus.
    I hadn’t realized that the correlations on the IPIP website were from training data. That closes the gap significantly.
    My proof/pudding comments weren’t meant as a knock against this paper (and I don’t think you took them that way). That’s beyond the scope of what you’d need to do in a first paper, and it’s more of a future directions issue. WRT that, in my experience abbreviated measures are often most needed in large, expensive surveys and longitudinal studies. But a catch-22 is that those are the situations where the stakes are so high that researchers will be hesitant to use unproven measures based on shiny new techniques. So there’ll need to be an interim period where enough researchers use GA-derived measures in lower-cost studies where maybe brevity isn’t such a premium. I’m glad to hear you’re already starting to do that.

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