Computational Brain & Behavior

, Volume 2, Issue 3–4, pp 160–165 | Cite as

A Model Hierarchy for Psychological Science

  • David KellenEmail author
Original Paper


Lee et al. (2019) provided a comprehensive list of recommendations for modelers that aims at improving the robustness of their results. Drawing from the literature on philosophy of science, the present commentary argues for a broader view of modeling that considers the different roles that they play in our scientific practices. Following Suppes (1966), I propose a model hierarchy and discuss the distinct issues that arise at each of its levels. The benefit of a hierarchy of this kind is that it can aid researchers in better understanding the different challenges that they face.


Cognitive modeling Robustness Model comparison 

There is much to like in Lee et al.’s (2019) recommendations. However, I cannot avoid thinking that something important is missing. If I had to express my concern in one sentence, it would be that “methodology is downstream of conceptual analysis.” In order to discuss methods and approaches in modeling and attribute them some utility, we first need to have a clear understanding of the different roles that models can play in our scientific practices. In psychological science, the term “model” is often exclusively understood in a “statistical sense,” denoting a parametric function that yields probability distributions over a well-defined sample space. In this commentary, I will rely on a broader understanding found in the philosophy of science literature, in which a model is any representation of some “target system” (for reviews, see Frigg and Hartmann 2018, Morgan et al. 1999).

A good starting point for discussing the roles that models can take is Patrick Suppes’ (1966) seminal paper Models of Data. In this short piece, Suppes argues that there is no direct contact between a researcher’s theory and the world. Instead, their relationship is mediated by multiple models that interact with each other in a somewhat hierarchical fashion:

... a whole hierarchy of models stands between the model of the basic theory and the complete experimental experience. Moreover, for each level of the hierarchy there is a theory in its own right. Theory at one level is given empirical meaning by making formal connections with theory at a lower level. (...) It is precisely the fundamental problem of scientific method to state the principles of scientific methodology that are to be used to answer these questions — questions of measurement, of goodness of fit, of parameter estimation, of identifiability, and the like. (Suppes 1966, pp. 260)

Figure 1 illustrates one possible Suppes-type hierarchy (for alternative formulations, see Giere 2004, 2010; Mayo 1996). At the top and bottom levels of the hierarchy, we have the researcher and the world, with the former holding theories and hypotheses about the latter. There is a deductive gap between the two, however. We cannot deduce a given observation O from a theory or hypothesis alone. To do so, we also need to introduce a number of auxiliary assumptions. The implication is that no set of observations (O or not-O) is by itself sufficient to change our beliefs about any scientific theory or hypothesis (Duhem 1954). This is where the models in the hierarchy come in. By providing representations of the theory, the data, and the experiment, they allow the researcher to bridge the deductive gap between her hypotheses and the world. On one hand, models enable the application of an abstract theory to some real system (e.g., observable behavior in a given experiment). On the other, they allow us to represent this real system in a more abstract and idealized manner that is amenable to theoretical description (Frigg and Hartmann 2018; Morgan et al. 1999).1 Finally, note that the arrows illustrate the crosstalk between the different levels of the hierarchy—they denote the presence of joint constraint and the fact that learning occurs via an iterative process. All levels of the hierarchy are to be continuously revisited through “loosening” and “tightening” activities, with new ideas being generated and tested (for discussions, see Box 1976, Fiedler 2018).
Fig. 1

A Suppes-type hierarchy. The arrows reflect the crosstalk existing between the different levels

The differentiation of models established by the proposed hierarchy is helpful in two ways. First, it highlights the nature of representation: To represent something is to engage in an intentional act of relating two objects according to an established set of goals and criteria. It involves somebody (the researcher) bestowing the representing object (the model) a given function. Cases of misrepresentation are those in which the representing object fails to serve this function and live up to the established criteria. A subway map deviates in many ways from the actual subway system. But because its goal is to tell you how to go places, we can only refer to it as a misrepresentation if it fails to take you from point A to B (for an overview, see Van Fraassen 2008). Second, the proposed differentiation makes the problem of appraisal and error checking more tractable, allowing researchers to investigate the possibility of assumption violations separately at each level. We can then refer to our modeling efforts as robust when are shown to withstand our best efforts to dismiss them (Mayo 1996).

Theoretical Models

Ours is a world in which people manifest a certain number of capacities: They see and hear, have beliefs and preferences, remember things, and engage in all kinds of actions based on a variety of reasons. In light of such capacities, theory development consists of attempts to explain them by making some reference to their causal pre-conditions (e.g., the underlying mechanisms; see Cummins 2000; Trigg and Kalish 2011; Weiskopf 2011). Behavioral results (e.g., “effects”), even those manifesting law-like regularities, take on an instrumental role in the sense that their value lies in their ability to inform us on the nature of these pre-conditions. For example, the value of list-strength effects observed in memory tasks is given by their ability to discard the notion that memory judgments are based on a “global match” between a target item and the presumptively stored memory traces (e.g., Shiffrin et al. 1990).2 Failure to establish a clear and theory-informed relationship between capacities and behavioral results can lead researchers astray. One drastic example of this can be found in the literature on syllogistic reasoning where, for over thirty years, researchers mistook ANOVA interaction terms as direct measures of change in reasoning ability and developed many different models around these presumed changes (for a discussion, see Rotello et al. 2015).3

Differences in researchers’ goals and criteria are responsible for the many classes of theoretical models found in the literature. For instance, we often make the distinction between process models (e.g., Decision Field Theory, Busemeyer and Townsend 1993) and measurement models (e.g., Multinomial Processing Tree models, Batchelder 2010). In some cases, theoretical models are developed with the intent of only capturing the general patterns in the data rather than provide a fine-grained account (e.g., Navarro 2019; Shiffrin and Nobel 1997). Some models are to be applied to a wide range of conditions (e.g., Newell 1990), whereas others are designed with a single experimental paradigm in mind (Batchelder 2010). As a result of the many lamentations on the current state of psychological science (e.g., Coyne 2016; Pashler and Wagenmakers 2012), one might be tempted to think that this diversity among theoretical models is yet another sign of conceptual confusion or immaturity of our field. In fact, it is the opposite. All of these different types of models provide complementary contributions with regard to experimental knowledge, measurement, and theory development that altogether have given us the leverage to make significant developments in many different domains (for discussions, see Garcia-Marques and Ferreira 2011, Weiskopf 2011). The overwhelming success of these modeling enterprises becomes especially clear when viewed through the lens that progress in science is measured by its “problem-solving” abilities rather than some unattainable notion of truth (Laudan 1977).

Given this diversity in modeling, it is important to keep in mind that the way we evaluate models is not orthogonal to our goals, it is determined by them. If we wish to find a model that strikes the “best” balance between fit and parsimony, then criteria such as Bayes factors or normalized maximum likelihood are natural choices. However, if our goal is to construct increasingly more encompassing or detailed accounts, other criteria such as minimizing deviance might be more reasonable. After all, a bias towards parsimony will not lead us to select models that are necessarily “closer” to the data-generating truth. In fact, it can even lead us to prefer parsimonious models that do not fit the data over more complex models that do (Gelman and Rubin 1999).

This discussion brings me to Lee et al.’s (2019) treatment of model-evaluation criteria. They argue that the many different evaluation criteria available can lead to opposite conclusions when applied to the same research question, models, and data (see their Figure 2). Their recommendation then is a preregistration of evaluation criteria, which in my view misses the point. The fact that two or more models can be fit to the same data does not imply that we are presented with an interesting model-comparison exercise. For all we know, the differences in model predictions might be minor and by and large due to their ancillary parametric assumptions. Perhaps the data are too simple to warrant all the different processes included in a model.4 What we need is a careful justification of why the data coming from a given study is interesting for purposes of model comparison. What are the diverging predictions and how do they connect with the theoretical claims made in each model? Are the divergences qualitative? Quantitative? How are they affected by ancillary assumptions? What can be inferred from different types of model misfits? In short, robust modeling first and foremost requires diagnostic data. The greater the diagnosticity, the less the differences between model-evaluation criteria will matter. In some cases, researchers are going to have to go bigger, and consider more complete accounts (e.g., Molloy et al. 2019). In other cases, they might have to go smaller, focusing on specific portions of data in which critical model features are manifested with little to no interference from ancillary assumptions (e.g., Birnbaum 2008; Kellen and Klauer 2015).

Requiring researchers to motivate the use of their data also minimizes other problematic issues mentioned by Lee et al. (2019) such as HARKing (hypothesizing after results are known): First, having researchers justify their design makes it hard for them to convincingly reframe it around some specific set of results. Second, in some cases where critical tests are involved, the history behind an hypothesis is of little importance. Take Lee et al.’s Example 1: Expected Utility Theory, a model that is unable to handle people’s choices across a wide range of well-defined scenarios (Allais 1953; Birnbaum 2008). Because these failures can be traced back to the model’s axioms, it does not matter if researchers derived them a priori or stumbled upon when inspecting their results.5

Models of Data

Researchers often overlook the fact that what we refer to as “data” never corresponds to some collection of “raw” observations, but to some canonical representation—a data model (Suppes 1966). This data model mediates the relation between theoretical models and the observations made. The adoption of a given data model can be motivated by many factors, such as the properties of the theoretical models one intends to adopt, the auxiliary assumptions one is prepared to assume (e.g., which type of summaries or aggregations do I find acceptable?), or mere tractability (for discussions, see Harris 2003; Mayo 1996).

Evaluating the assumptions of the data model is a necessary step to ensure the robustness of our inferences. For instance, researchers often construct data points by summarizing multiple observations. Whether such summaries are reasonable depends on the theoretical models being considered. One example can be found in Navarro (2019), who discussed the modeling of a learning experiment in which responses across multiple trials were aggregated into accuracy scores. By aggregating, one is tacitly assuming that there is no information of interest being lost, such as in cases where observations are independent and identically distributed (iid). When such assumptions are determined to be false, we need to focus our attention on the risks that we are exposed to. In the case of Navarro, the theoretical modeling efforts would be at serious risk had she intended to capture the exact shape of the data (e.g., Heathcote et al. 2000). However, her goal was to merely capture the qualitative trends, placing her in a much less vulnerable situation (for a related discussion, see Kellen and Klauer in press).6

Sometimes multiple data models are possible, each with its own advantages and shortcomings. Consider the study of transitivity in preferential choice, in which different data and theoretical models have been used (Birnbaum 2011; Regenwetter et al. 2011a). Transitivity corresponds to the notion that preferences are based on a subjective representation of options that yields a (partial) rank order. If one prefers option A over B and B over C, then one also prefers A over C. One possible data model, used by Regenwetter et al., constructs choice proportions based on choices recorded across several option-pair replications. An advantage of this data model is that it allows for transitivity to be tested under conditions in which it is very unlikely to hold a priori. The disadvantage is the need for multiple option-pair replications along with the assumption that choices are iid. An alternative data model was proposed by Birnbaum (2011), in which people’s choice patterns across option pairs are considered instead. An attractive feature of this data model is that it does not require multiple replications or iid assumptions. However, the severity of the testing that can be conducted is comparatively lower (see Regenwetter et al. 2011a, 2011b).

Models of the Experiment

Finally, we turn to the level of the hierarchy that has received the least attention among philosophers of science and theoreticians (for notable exceptions, see Galison 1987; Hacking 1983; Mayo 1996). The experiment model establishes the relationship between the theoretical model and the different conditions in an experimental design. According to Suppes (1966), the questions associated with this level are concerned with parameter identifiability, the precision of estimation in general (e.g., Spektor and Kellen 2018), and selective influence (e.g., Rae et al. 2014). I would argue that this level should also include our assumptions regarding the way individuals engage with tasks. Take the case of forced-choice tasks: Whenever we model participants’ responses, we often take for granted that they are based on relative judgments rather than absolute ones (but see Starns et al. 2017). This understanding of what constitutes a model of the experiment and its demarcation from theoretical models is analogous to the distinction between “task theory” and “cognitive architecture” found in the ACT-R literature (for a discussion, see Cooper 2007).

Based on this understanding, one concern that I have relates with the degree of abstraction that is often applied (see Footnote 1). Many different experiments can be perceived as structurally equivalent if we only focus on some of its properties. This equivalence invites researchers to assume that the same experiment model holds for all of them. However, this equivalence only exists from the researcher’s perspective, not the individuals who take part in an experiment. Lee et al.’s (2019) Example 2: Context Effects in Decision Making provides a perfect example, as it is a domain in which researchers have translated consumer-choice problems into perceptual-judgment tasks that preserve their basic structure (Trueblood et al. 2013). A context effect is said to occur when the probability of someone choosing one alternative over the other is influenced by the presence of a third alternative. For instance, the probability of choosing a certain variety of apples over oranges can be increased by introducing an inferior variety of apples, an attraction effect.

Spektor et al. (2018) attempted to further explore the attraction effect using Trueblood et al.’s (2013) perceptual task. Much to their surprise, they were consistently obtaining a strong effect in the opposite direction—a repulsion effect. After several experiments, Spektor et al. were able to find some of the causes behind this reversal. Chief among these was the arrangement of the stimuli on the screen. Whereas Trueblood et al. had the stimuli displayed horizontally and somewhat close, Spektor et al. used a “triangular” arrangement and placed them somewhat farther apart. This dependency on presentation format outright rejects the experiment model as participants are engaging with the task in a way that is sensitive to experimental-design choices thought to be innocuous. Rejections of this kind can compromise the robustness of theoretical modeling efforts, given that the resulting characterizations are likely to hold only under a very specific set of not-so-interesting circumstances.


Lee et al.’s (2019) discussion is largely predicated on a statistical understanding of models. This is evidenced by their comparison with traditional data analyses, in which they argue that the main difference between the two pretty much lies on whether substantive interpretations can be made. The goal of this commentary is to show that this understanding overlooks the numerous roles that models can play in our scientific practices (Frigg and Hartmann 2018; Morgan et al. 1999). Hierarchies like the one proposed by Suppes (1966) provide a way to make sense of these roles and understand the different types of errors that one can commit at each level. The end result is a more complete view of what robust modeling means.


  1. 1.

    When discussing representations, it is often important to distinguish between idealization and abstraction. According to Cartwright (1983), idealization is a deliberate distortion that facilitates the representation of a given system (e.g., imposing a given functional form), whereas abstraction involves the omission of some of those system’s properties (e.g., omitting some form of internal noise or variability).

  2. 2.

    This does not exclude the possibility of certain effects “gaining a life of their own” (Hacking 1983; Mayo 1996). Consider the case of the fan effect, which was originally used in the development of ACT-R (Anderson 1974). Since then the fan effect has grown beyond this role, to the point that it has even been used as a measurement tool in the study of group and individual differences (e.g., Cantor and Engle 1993; for a discussion, see Garcia-Marques and Ferreira 2011).

  3. 3.

    Importantly, these interaction effects are “statistically robust” in the sense that they have been widely replicated. But the only thing this robustness achieved was the perpetuation of a misunderstanding. This suggests that our definition of robust modeling needs to be broader, something along the lines of “modeling that is unlikely to fool ourselves and others.”

  4. 4.

    Take a look at Figure 2 in Lee et al. (2019). One can argue that there is no real disagreement between criteria simply because the performance differences are negligible. Also both models seem to be producing somewhat similar patterns.

  5. 5.

    One reviewer asked about the possibility of HARKing when researchers are free to determine which assumptions are central to the model and which are ancillary. I do not see a problem in allowing researchers to have complete freedom in the way that they set up their models. The important question is whether they can make a compelling case for the choices they made. Take the case of utility models: Could anybody justify a critical test that required the utility function to be linear? I cannot see how, especially without any reference to focused studies testing this assumption (e.g., Kirby 2011), or the use of an experimental design that would make such an assumption plausible (e.g., Birnbaum 2008).

  6. 6.

    In some cases, we have a great deal of background knowledge that outright questions the use of certain data models. For example, it is well known in the response-time literature that response-time means are very limited in their ability to characterize the underlying distribution of response times (e.g., Balota and Yap 2011). Evans et al. (2017) report a a comparison between two rival evidence-accumulation models in which the outcome completely depends on whether response-time means or the entire distributions are considered.



I thank Mike L. Kalish, Henrik Singmann, and Andrea L. Turnbull for valuable comments on an earlier draft.


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Copyright information

© Society for Mathematical Psychology 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologySyracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA

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