Choosing prediction over explanation in psychology: Lessons from machine learning

2016-02-19T22:23:32Z (GMT) by Tal Yarkoni Jacob Westfall
Abstract: Psychology has historically been concerned, first and foremost, with explaining the causal mechanisms that give rise to behavior. Randomized, tightly controlled experiments are enshrined as the gold standard of psychological research, and there are endless investigations of the various mediating and moderating variables that govern various behaviors. We argue that psychology’s near-exclusive emphasis on explaining the causes of behavior has led much of the field to be populated by research programs that provide intricate theories of psychological mechanism, but that have little (or unknown) ability to actually predict future behaviors with any appreciable accuracy. We propose that principles and techniques from the field of machine learning can help psychology become a more predictive science. We review some of the fundamental concepts and tools of machine learning and point out examples where these concepts have been used to conduct interesting and important psychological research that focuses on predictive research questions. We suggest that an increased focus on prediction, rather than explanation, can ultimately lead us to greater understanding of behavior.