Measuring the predictability of life outcomes with a scientific mass collaboration

Matthew J. Salganik, Ian Lundberg, Alexander T. Kindel, Caitlin E. Ahearn, Khaled Al-Ghoneim, Abdullah Almaaatouq, Drew M. Altschul, Jennie E. Brand, Nicole Bohme Carnegie, Ryan James Compton, Debanjan Datta, Thomas Davidson, Anna Filippova, Connor Gilroy, Brian J. Goode, Eaman Jahani, Ridhi Kashyap, Antje Kirchner, Stephen McKay, A MorganAlex Pentland, Kivan Polimis, Louis Raes, Daniel E. Rigobon, Claudia V. Roberts, Diana Stanescu, Yoshihiko Suhara, Adaner Usmani, Erik Wang

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    How predictable are life trajectories? We investigated this question with a scientific mass collaboration using the common task method; 160 teams built predictive models for six life out comes using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a high-quality birth cohort study. Despite using a rich dataset and applying machine-learning methods optimized for prediction, the best predictions were not very accurate and were only slightly better than those from a simple benchmark model. Within each outcome, prediction error was strongly associated with the family being predicted and weakly associated with the technique used to generate the prediction. Overall, these results suggest practical limits to the predictability of life outcomes in some settings and illustrate the value of mass collaborations in the social sciences.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)8398-8403
    JournalPNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
    Issue number15
    Publication statusPublished - 2020


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