I'm training a random forest model with AUC as performance metric. I've splitted my data to train set (70%) and test set (30%) and performed cross-validation on train set to tune the hyperparameters. As for now, I've ended up with a model that has ~0.95 AUC on the training data, ~0.85 AUC in cross-validation process and ~0.84 AUC on the test data. It seems to me that cross-validation failed in that case and although it estimate test error pretty nice, my model is overfitting. I know that one way to prevent overfitting is to get more data, but it's usually not possible (as in this case). In case of linear or logistic regression I could remove some features as well, but I think random forests naturally ignores features that are irrelevant. Why, despite using cross-validation, my model overfits? What can be done to resolve that issue?

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you think your model is overfitting? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ @jakes That's a common misconception about overfitting. It's not true that better training scores than test scores indicate an overfit model. In fact, the way that random forest works almost guarantees that phenomena. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ In random forest you normally start with random sampling of variables per split, so you could try to remove features or use dimensionality reduction techniques such as PCA. Regarding overfitting, by definition your model will be expected to perform not better on test data than on training data. Your model has 0.85 AUC in cross-validation process and ~0.84 AUC on the test data, which is almost the same, so no big issue of overfitting there. $\endgroup$
    – PeterD
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with peteR, (+1) going from 0.85 on CV to 0.84 on the hold-out set is fine. I would even suspect that the variability of the CV estimate my encompass the value on the hold-out set. (Useful question though, +1) $\endgroup$
    – usεr11852
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ Why are you splitting data that's built into random forest.. also why use cross validation on top off out of bag error. Your a priori splitting data, then cv splits data (amount depends on cv type) and the random forest splits data. Your building your model with a fraction of a fraction of your data...do you get consistent results? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 7:09

1 Answer 1

  1. your performanc numbers are meaningless without knowing the uncertainty these estimates have.
    The main factor influencing them here is the absolute number of cases tested. In other words, unless you have a huge data set (which seems unlikely as you say more data is out of question - that's typically an indicator of small sample sizes), a 0.01 difference in observed AUC is unlikely to be significant.

  2. Cross validation in itself is not supposed to do anything about overfitting. It is a verification procedure that helps estimating a particular type of generalization error. It is up to you to prevent overfitting.

  3. Cross validation can only correctly estimate generalization error if the splitting procedure actually achieves statistical independence between the splits.
    So the most frequent answer to "why did cross validaton not prevent me from overfitting?" is that the splitting was not done correctly.
    Still, I don't see indication of overfitting in your case so far.

  4. Random forests are set up in a way that the individual trees are assumed to overfit. In terms of predictive power there cannot be too many trees. You can have too few trees, causing the random forest's predictions to be unstable. You may consider this overfitting - but we don't have any evidence here that this actually the case.

  5. There are dedicated ways to measure model instability - which is more closely related to overfitting than observing differences between training and generalization error.
    For example, you can measure instability in prediction via iterated/repeated cross validation by comparing predictions for the same case. More details in our paper Beleites, C. & Salzer, R.: Assessing and improving the stability of chemometric models in small sample size situations, Anal Bioanal Chem, 390, 1261-1271 (2008).
    DOI: 10.1007/s00216-007-1818-6

    Overfitting means that the model is too complex, i.e. it fits some noise in the training data. If you consider model space, in a situation of overfitting, classifiers trained on (even slightly) different training points will have different class boundaries.

    Note that if we're talking prediction, we can distinguish between differences in the model that don't hurt prediction (e.g. if the random forest switches back and forth which of a bunch of collinear predictors it actually uses) and differences that cause changes in prediction.

    Two rather direct ways of checking instability caused by overfitting are a) checking the actual model (difficult for random forest, but easy e.g. for linear models) and checking where the class boundaries (or the regression function) lies in sample space and whether that changes between our different models. The latter doesn't care about instability inside the model that doesn't affect prediction.

    One way of doing the latter is having a number of such models predict the same test cases and then looking at the variation we observe. This can be done e.g. using the surrogate models of a k-fold cross validation, but also by calculating surrogates from the internals of an out-of-bag calculation.
    The indication we get this way is more sensitive to instability in the predictions than looking at the overall error as the effect on overall error can be small if the difference in predictions leads just to other (but not necessarily more) cases being misclassified.

  • $\begingroup$ Ad 1. What exactly you mean by huge dataset? what would be the expected ratio between number of observations and number of predictors? Ad 5. Any example of such a measure? And more generally, if not observing train/test error, when exactly would you state that model is (not) overfitting? I mean on what grounds? $\endgroup$
    – jakes
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ @jakes: no of observations vs. predictors does not matter at all for error estimates: there, only the number of cases tested matters. For "simple" fractions such as accuracy, back-of-the-envelope calculations of necessary sample size are possible (for 0.84 vs. 0.85 accuracy we'd be talking about some 24000 cases) But for sample size estimates for AUC differences, you'll have to start with your observations. Look up how to calculate confidence intervals and how to test for differences in AUC. In R, package pROC would be your friend. $\endgroup$
    – cbeleites
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 20:46

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