I am running a ridge regression using GLMNET (alpha = 0) and would like to interpret the coefficients returned. I know there isn't really a significance test for this, but can I at least rank the variable importance? I am interested in explanatory, not predictive power, which is why this is important to me.

Here are some of my thoughts on how to do this:

  1. Standardize the data before running it through GLMNET. Pass standardize=F to GLMNET and just sort the coefficients by magnitude. I'm not sure that this is correct, but someone suggested it for LASSO elsewhere.
  2. If I run the regression using caret, then it gives me a varImp function. I don't know how it calculates this, but the results seem nice. How does this work, and if it is correct, can I implement it for standard GLMNEt without caret?
  3. Someone recommended I somehow compute confidence intervals for each coefficent and see how far they are from 0. Any variable that included 0 in this interval is unimportant.

One problem here is that options 1 and 2 are giving me different results, so I am not sure who to trust.

Edit: I see from this answer that in option 2, caret's varImp function is actually just the magnitude of the coefficients (option 1).

  • $\begingroup$ As a comment to "One problem here is that options 1 and 2 are giving me different results". Since the concept of "variable importance" is so vague, it's not surprising that two different methods that feel reasonable would give you differentiating results. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2015 at 0:30

1 Answer 1


1) Ridge regression shrinks perfectly correlated predictors equally. Suppose that your true model is:

$$ Y = X_1 + X_2 + 2X_3 + \epsilon $$

Where $X_1$ and $X_2$ are perfectly correlated ($X_1 = X_2$ in distribution) and $X_3$ is uncorrelated with the other two. Then, depending on your specification of the model, you would get the following regressions:

  • $X_1$ and $X_2$ in: $Y = X_1 + X_2 + 2X_3$
  • Only $X_1$ in : $Y = 2X_1 + 2X_3$
  • Only $X_2$ in : $Y = 2X_2 + 2X_3$

so the variable importance ranking is very dependent on what variables are available and specified as in or not in the model. Worse, a reasonable method would probably say that $X_1$ and $X_2$ are equally important, and also, as a set, equal in importance to $X_3$. It doesn't seem like there is a way to recover this from a single ridge regression.

2) You answered this already.

3) One option would be bootstrapping. You can bootstrap sample your training data, and fit a ridge on each sample. This will let you get a sample distribution of the coefficients, and you could derive intervals from these. This has similar issues to 1) though.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! Is there another method to interpret the results of a penalized regression that you think would be more effective than variable importance, since each of these options has some big pitfalls? $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2015 at 1:10

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