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Preview: Psychological Methods - Vol 11, Iss 3

Psychological Methods - Vol 21, Iss 4

Psychological Methods is devoted to the development and dissemination of methods for collecting, analyzing, understanding, and interpreting psychological data. Its purpose is the dissemination of innovations in research design, measurement, methodology, a

Last Build Date: Wed, 01 Mar 2017 15:00:15 EST

Copyright: Copyright 2017 American Psychological Association

Big data in psychology: Introduction to the special issue.


The introduction to this special issue on psychological research involving big data summarizes the highlights of 10 articles that address a number of important and inspiring perspectives, issues, and applications. Four common themes that emerge in the articles with respect to psychological research conducted in the area of big data are mentioned, including: (a) The benefits of collaboration across disciplines, such as those in the social sciences, applied statistics, and computer science. Doing so assists in grounding big data research in sound theory and practice, as well as in affording effective data retrieval and analysis. (b) Availability of large data sets on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites that provide a psychological window into the attitudes and behaviors of a broad spectrum of the population. (c) Identifying, addressing, and being sensitive to ethical considerations when analyzing large data sets gained from public or private sources. (d) The unavoidable necessity of validating predictive models in big data by applying a model developed on 1 dataset to a separate set of data or hold-out sample. Translational abstracts that summarize the articles in very clear and understandable terms are included in Appendix A, and a glossary of terms relevant to big data research discussed in the articles is presented in Appendix B. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

A practical guide to big data research in psychology.


The massive volume of data that now covers a wide variety of human behaviors offers researchers in psychology an unprecedented opportunity to conduct innovative theory- and data-driven field research. This article is a practical guide to conducting big data research, covering data management, acquisition, processing, and analytics (including key supervised and unsupervised learning data mining methods). It is accompanied by walkthrough tutorials on data acquisition, text analysis with latent Dirichlet allocation topic modeling, and classification with support vector machines. Big data practitioners in academia, industry, and the community have built a comprehensive base of tools and knowledge that makes big data research accessible to researchers in a broad range of fields. However, big data research does require knowledge of software programming and a different analytical mindset. For those willing to acquire the requisite skills, innovative analyses of unexpected or previously untapped data sources can offer fresh ways to develop, test, and extend theories. When conducted with care and respect, big data research can become an essential complement to traditional research. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

A primer on theory-driven web scraping: Automatic extraction of big data from the Internet for use in psychological research.


The term big data encompasses a wide range of approaches of collecting and analyzing data in ways that were not possible before the era of modern personal computing. One approach to big data of great potential to psychologists is web scraping, which involves the automated collection of information from webpages. Although web scraping can create massive big datasets with tens of thousands of variables, it can also be used to create modestly sized, more manageable datasets with tens of variables but hundreds of thousands of cases, well within the skillset of most psychologists to analyze, in a matter of hours. In this article, we demystify web scraping methods as currently used to examine research questions of interest to psychologists. First, we introduce an approach called theory-driven web scraping in which the choice to use web-based big data must follow substantive theory. Second, we introduce data source theories, a term used to describe the assumptions a researcher must make about a prospective big data source in order to meaningfully scrape data from it. Critically, researchers must derive specific hypotheses to be tested based upon their data source theory, and if these hypotheses are not empirically supported, plans to use that data source should be changed or eliminated. Third, we provide a case study and sample code in Python demonstrating how web scraping can be conducted to collect big data along with links to a web tutorial designed for psychologists. Fourth, we describe a 4-step process to be followed in web scraping projects. Fifth and finally, we discuss legal, practical and ethical concerns faced when conducting web scraping projects. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Mining big data to extract patterns and predict real-life outcomes.


This article aims to introduce the reader to essential tools that can be used to obtain insights and build predictive models using large data sets. Recent user proliferation in the digital environment has led to the emergence of large samples containing a wealth of traces of human behaviors, communication, and social interactions. Such samples offer the opportunity to greatly improve our understanding of individuals, groups, and societies, but their analysis presents unique methodological challenges. In this tutorial, we discuss potential sources of such data and explain how to efficiently store them. Then, we introduce two methods that are often employed to extract patterns and reduce the dimensionality of large data sets: singular value decomposition and latent Dirichlet allocation. Finally, we demonstrate how to use dimensions or clusters extracted from data to build predictive models in a cross-validated way. The text is accompanied by examples of R code and a sample data set, allowing the reader to practice the methods discussed here. A companion website ( provides additional learning resources. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Gaining insights from social media language: Methodologies and challenges.


Language data available through social media provide opportunities to study people at an unprecedented scale. However, little guidance is available to psychologists who want to enter this area of research. Drawing on tools and techniques developed in natural language processing, we first introduce psychologists to social media language research, identifying descriptive and predictive analyses that language data allow. Second, we describe how raw language data can be accessed and quantified for inclusion in subsequent analyses, exploring personality as expressed on Facebook to illustrate. Third, we highlight challenges and issues to be considered, including accessing and processing the data, interpreting effects, and ethical issues. Social media has become a valuable part of social life, and there is much we can learn by bringing together the tools of computer science with the theories and insights of psychology. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Tweeting negative emotion: An investigation of Twitter data in the aftermath of violence on college campuses.


Studying communities impacted by traumatic events is often costly, requires swift action to enter the field when disaster strikes, and may be invasive for some traumatized respondents. Typically, individuals are studied after the traumatic event with no baseline data against which to compare their postdisaster responses. Given these challenges, we used longitudinal Twitter data across 3 case studies to examine the impact of violence near or on college campuses in the communities of Isla Vista, CA, Flagstaff, AZ, and Roseburg, OR, compared with control communities, between 2014 and 2015. To identify users likely to live in each community, we sought Twitter accounts local to those communities and downloaded tweets of their respective followers. Tweets were then coded for the presence of event-related negative emotion words using a computerized text analysis method (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, LIWC). In Case Study 1, we observed an increase in postevent negative emotion expression among sampled followers after mass violence, and show how patterns of response appear differently based on the timeframe under scrutiny. In Case Study 2, we replicate the pattern of results among users in the control group from Case Study 1 after a campus shooting in that community killed 1 student. In Case Study 3, we replicate this pattern in another group of Twitter users likely to live in a community affected by a mass shooting. We discuss conducting trauma-related research using Twitter data and provide guidance to researchers interested in using Twitter to answer their own research questions in this domain. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Comparing vector-based and Bayesian memory models using large-scale datasets: User-generated hashtag and tag prediction on Twitter and Stack Overflow.


The growth of social media and user-created content on online sites provides unique opportunities to study models of human declarative memory. By framing the task of choosing a hashtag for a tweet and tagging a post on Stack Overflow as a declarative memory retrieval problem, 2 cognitively plausible declarative memory models were applied to millions of posts and tweets and evaluated on how accurately they predict a user’s chosen tags. An ACT-R based Bayesian model and a random permutation vector-based model were tested on the large data sets. The results show that past user behavior of tag use is a strong predictor of future behavior. Furthermore, past behavior was successfully incorporated into the random permutation model that previously used only context. Also, ACT-R’s attentional weight term was linked to an entropy-weighting natural language processing method used to attenuate high-frequency words (e.g., articles and prepositions). Word order was not found to be a strong predictor of tag use, and the random permutation model performed comparably to the Bayesian model without including word order. This shows that the strength of the random permutation model is not in the ability to represent word order, but rather in the way in which context information is successfully compressed. The results of the large-scale exploration show how the architecture of the 2 memory models can be modified to significantly improve accuracy, and may suggest task-independent general modifications that can help improve model fit to human data in a much wider range of domains. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Theory-guided exploration with structural equation model forests.


Structural equation model (SEM) trees, a combination of SEMs and decision trees, have been proposed as a data-analytic tool for theory-guided exploration of empirical data. With respect to a hypothesized model of multivariate outcomes, such trees recursively find subgroups with similar patterns of observed data. SEM trees allow for the automatic selection of variables that predict differences across individuals in specific theoretical models, for instance, differences in latent factor profiles or developmental trajectories. However, SEM trees are unstable when small variations in the data can result in different trees. As a remedy, SEM forests, which are ensembles of SEM trees based on resamplings of the original dataset, provide increased stability. Because large forests are less suitable for visual inspection and interpretation, aggregate measures provide researchers with hints on how to improve their models: (a) variable importance is based on random permutations of the out-of-bag (OOB) samples of the individual trees and quantifies, for each variable, the average reduction of uncertainty about the model-predicted distribution; and (b) case proximity enables researchers to perform clustering and outlier detection. We provide an overview of SEM forests and illustrate their utility in the context of cross-sectional factor models of intelligence and episodic memory. We discuss benefits and limitations, and provide advice on how and when to use SEM trees and forests in future research. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Finding structure in data using multivariate tree boosting.


Technology and collaboration enable dramatic increases in the size of psychological and psychiatric data collections, but finding structure in these large data sets with many collected variables is challenging. Decision tree ensembles such as random forests (Strobl, Malley, & Tutz, 2009) are a useful tool for finding structure, but are difficult to interpret with multiple outcome variables which are often of interest in psychology. To find and interpret structure in data sets with multiple outcomes and many predictors (possibly exceeding the sample size), we introduce a multivariate extension to a decision tree ensemble method called gradient boosted regression trees (Friedman, 2001). Our extension, multivariate tree boosting, is a method for nonparametric regression that is useful for identifying important predictors, detecting predictors with nonlinear effects and interactions without specification of such effects, and for identifying predictors that cause 2 or more outcome variables to covary. We provide the R package “mvtboost” to estimate, tune, and interpret the resulting model, which extends the implementation of univariate boosting in the R package “gbm” (Ridgeway, 2015) to continuous, multivariate outcomes. To illustrate the approach, we analyze predictors of psychological well-being (Ryff & Keyes, 1995). Simulations verify that our approach identifies predictors with nonlinear effects and achieves high prediction accuracy, exceeding or matching the performance of (penalized) multivariate multiple regression and multivariate decision trees over a wide range of conditions. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Statistical learning theory for high dimensional prediction: Application to criterion-keyed scale development.


Statistical learning theory (SLT) is the statistical formulation of machine learning theory, a body of analytic methods common in “big data” problems. Regression-based SLT algorithms seek to maximize predictive accuracy for some outcome, given a large pool of potential predictors, without overfitting the sample. Research goals in psychology may sometimes call for high dimensional regression. One example is criterion-keyed scale construction, where a scale with maximal predictive validity must be built from a large item pool. Using this as a working example, we first introduce a core principle of SLT methods: minimization of expected prediction error (EPE). Minimizing EPE is fundamentally different than maximizing the within-sample likelihood, and hinges on building a predictive model of sufficient complexity to predict the outcome well, without undue complexity leading to overfitting. We describe how such models are built and refined via cross-validation. We then illustrate how 3 common SLT algorithms–supervised principal components, regularization, and boosting—can be used to construct a criterion-keyed scale predicting all-cause mortality, using a large personality item pool within a population cohort. Each algorithm illustrates a different approach to minimizing EPE. Finally, we consider broader applications of SLT predictive algorithms, both as supportive analytic tools for conventional methods, and as primary analytic tools in discovery phase research. We conclude that despite their differences from the classic null-hypothesis testing approach—or perhaps because of them—SLT methods may hold value as a statistically rigorous approach to exploratory regression. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)

Partial least squares correspondence analysis: A framework to simultaneously analyze behavioral and genetic data.


For nearly a century, detecting the genetic contributions to cognitive and behavioral phenomena has been a core interest for psychological research. Recently, this interest has been reinvigorated by the availability of genotyping technologies (e.g., microarrays) that provide new genetic data, such as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). These SNPs—which represent pairs of nucleotide letters (e.g., AA, AG, or GG) found at specific positions on human chromosomes—are best considered as categorical variables, but this coding scheme can make difficult the multivariate analysis of their relationships with behavioral measurements, because most multivariate techniques developed for the analysis between sets of variables are designed for quantitative variables. To palliate this problem, we present a generalization of partial least squares—a technique used to extract the information common to 2 different data tables measured on the same observations—called partial least squares correspondence analysis—that is specifically tailored for the analysis of categorical and mixed (“heterogeneous”) data types. Here, we formally define and illustrate—in a tutorial format—how partial least squares correspondence analysis extends to various types of data and design problems that are particularly relevant for psychological research that include genetic data. We illustrate partial least squares correspondence analysis with genetic, behavioral, and neuroimaging data from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. R code is available on the Comprehensive R Archive Network and via the authors’ websites. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)(image)