Efficient Selection Between Hierarchical Cognitive Models: Cross-Validation With Variational Bayes

Publication Name

Psychological Methods


Model comparison is the cornerstone of theoretical progress in psychological research. Common practice overwhelmingly relies on tools that evaluate competing models by balancing in-sample descriptive adequacy against model flexibility, with modern approaches advocating the use of marginal likelihood for hierarchical cognitive models. Cross-validation is another popular approach but its implementation remains out of reach for cognitive models evaluated in a Bayesian hierarchical framework, with the major hurdle being its prohibitive computational cost. To address this issue, we develop novel algorithms that make variational Bayes (VB) inference for hierarchical models feasible and computationally efficient for complex cognitive models of substantive theoretical interest. It is well known that VB produces good estimates of the first moments of the parameters, which gives good predictive densities estimates. We thus develop a novel VB algorithm with Bayesian prediction as a tool to perform model comparison by cross-validation, which we refer to as CVVB. In particular, CVVB can be used as a model screening device that quickly identifies bad models. We demonstrate the utility of CVVB by revisiting a classic question in decision making research: what latent components of processing drive the ubiquitous speed-accuracy tradeoff? We demonstrate that CVVB strongly agrees with model comparison via marginal likelihood, yet achieves the outcome in much less time. Our approach brings cross-validation within reach of theoretically important psychological models, making it feasible to compare much larger families of hierarchically specified cognitive models than has previously been possible. To enhance the applicability of the algorithm, we provide Matlab code together with a user manual so users can easily implement VB and/or CVVB for the models considered in this article and their variants

Funding Number


Funding Sponsor

Australian Research Council



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