The relative merit of empirical priors in non-identifiable and sloppy models: Applications to models of learning and decision-making

Empirical priors
  • Mikhail S. Spektor
  • David Kellen
Theoretical Review


Formal modeling approaches to cognition provide a principled characterization of observed responses in terms of a set of postulated processes, specifically in terms of parameters that modulate the latter. These model-based characterizations are useful to the extent that there is a clear, one-to-one mapping between parameters and model expectations (identifiability) and that parameters can be recovered from reasonably sized data using a typical experimental design (recoverability). These properties are sometimes not met for certain combinations of model classes and data. One suggestion to improve parameter identifiability and recoverability involves the use of “empirical priors”, which constrain parameters according to a previously observed distribution of values. We assessed the efficacy of this proposal using a combination of real and artificial data. Our results showed that a point-estimate variant of the empirical-prior method could not improve parameter recovery systematically. We identified the source of poor parameter recovery in the low information content of the data. As a follow-up step, we developed a fully Bayesian variant of the empirical-prior method and assessed its performance. We find that even such a method that takes the covariance structure of the parameter distributions into account cannot reliably improve parameter recovery. We conclude that researchers should invest additional efforts in improving the informativeness of their experimental designs, as many of the problems associated to impoverished designs cannot be alleviated by modern statistical methods alone.


Identifiability Empirical priors Reinforcement learning Prospect theory 



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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of PsychologyUniversity of BaselBaselSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of FreiburgFreiburgGermany
  3. 3.College of Arts and SciencesSyracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA

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